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"New futures from old horizons." Author of off-kilter sci fi/fantasy books. Fond of apocalyptic and fantastical things. Known for phuquerie. I bite. On Amazon.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Podcasts and Horror Writing: Some Observations

Hello hello!

In the last six or eight months, I've fallen in love with podcasts. I started off just listening to Welcome to Night Vale, courtesy of Tumblr, and The Thrilling Adventure Hour soon followed after they ad a crossover. Following Mara Wilson's Twitter feed led me to I Don't Even Own a Television. From there, I started to poke around, and talked to a few friends, like Louisa (blog link). I got hooked on Sawbones and Oh No, Ross and Carrie. My Brother, My Brother, and Me became my nightly comfort, the McElroy brothers' voices lulling me safely to sleep. Listening to a happy, healthy family kibitz and bond over Yahoo answers and social niceties  has made dark times that much easier to endure, and helped me step back into the light.

Of course, I seek more than comfort and the joy of new information. These days, I often enjoy horror rather than fearfully avoiding it, and one of the best creepy podcasts around has to be Lore. As always, however, one can only binge-listen to a cast for so long before running out of episodes, and I sought alternatives and supplements to my fix. The HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast caught my attention as well, and after I'd run out of episodes of that--no mean feat, but I tend to listen obsessively to shows I enjoy, rather than just taking them in once a week or every two weeks--I had to find more horror and fiction podcasts.

Where did I go next?


I haven't finished them or listened to much of them, so I will not yet link Psuedopod, Drabblecast, or Knifepoint Horror, but they come well-recommended. TANIS and The Black Tapes are also moderately popular, though have mixed reviews. Perhaps one of the best known is the Reddit-sourced NoSleep podcast, based on the subreddit of the same name.

I have not yet completed the podcast's run of back episodes, but my favorite episodes of NoSleep, and the ones I consider the best, are the following. I have included notes about the entries.

Episode 1--the very first story is perfectly chilling and one of the most unnerving I've ever heard.
Episode 3--the first story is the best, once again.
Episode 7--only We Don't Talk about Sarah, though.
Episode 8--My Best Friend's Grandmother; again, the others are meh.
Penpal Part 1--generally, both parts are an interesting and suspenseful mystery, but see below.
Penpal Part 2
Episode 14--the whole thing is pretty great.
Episode 18--both stories are rather good, but the last one is remarkable.

Normally, I wouldn't include so many links, but I want readers to understand my sources and references before I shovel conclusions over them like so much grave dirt.

What is it about horror? 


I've come to like horror because it allowed me to frame my own demons in a more useful way, and to get in touch with the dark side of my imagination. Many authors have written about the appeal of horror, and I would be redundant to ask why the world of shadows and fear calls to so many.

I would suggest, however, that in addition to expressing personal darkness, the appeal of horror is partly in how it inverts some expectations. Most stories involve things ultimately going right; horror is about things going wrong. The Hero's Journey structure (see below) becomes inverted, and often foreshortened abruptly by disaster.



Source. This is allegedly what all stories come back to.


In a horror story, the hero's journey still occurs, but there's no guarantee of redemption, just further horror and loss. Readers, viewers, and listeners derive a weird comfort from facing their fears about the worst thing that could possibly happen.

Meet the new boss? 

The exciting thing about the NoSleep podcast is that it's a trove of unknown and developing writers, rather than old hands and established experts. Sometimes the writing is mediocre or amusingly inept, but the variety is a real pleasure.

These authors tend to use an X-Files sort of sensibility--setting mysteries in the local environs, even in office buildings, subdivisions, and backyards. Narrators/protagonists are often relatively innocent, rather than being guilty of violence before the narrative's events take place. Surprise encounters dominate most of the events, or narrators become the victims of more powerful and often abusive, stalking forces.

Unreliable narrators are common, and it is often difficult to determine whether the main characters have a loose grip on reality or are truly experiencing paranormal events. This is enhanced or exacerbated by circumstances of shyness and social isolation; protagonists are usually lonely, ordinary nebbish types--not just Everyman sorts, but updated ones, often labouring under the kinds of crappy jobs that so many Millennials and Gen Xers take.

But not everything is intriguingly updated. With many modern sensibilities come unwelcome old friends.





...Same as the old boss.


No, what I want to know is--why does horror reinforce so many old ideas? The NoSleep podcast is a particularly interesting example of this, because the writers are culled from Reddit. Reddit is mostly populated by young men, under the age of forty. 

One might not expect that so many younger men would reinforce gender stereotypes as strongly as these writers do, but an interesting thread through even my favorite stories tended to be gender essentialism. Female characters were usually mothers, were depicted as more fearful and physically weaker than male characters, and tended to be subjected to far more violence.

Female antagonists, however, are common, and usually tend to be lurking spectres or haunted children. They present menace but rarely enact the actual violence. Other antagonistic forces are often either genderless or somewhat male-coded, and tend to be far more violent.

This being said, lady writers do occasionally contribute, and often focus on issues of mental health and abandonment, or lack of physical safety. Stalking also crops up. These elements are really interesting, and I'd love to see more of them. Perhaps the next seasons will deliver that!


***

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!



Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Pretty Things

Pretty Things by
David Bowie was rattling around in my head like a penny in a tin can
late at night I was

building tenuous struts from imaginary castles to real skyscrapers
linking the family I'd been born into with
the friends I had chosen
family is a concept made tenuous by distance and made real by our choices
that's just how connections work

Earl Grey was on my tongue and silver oxide on my fingertips as I
untangled and broke a dozen tiny chains, trying to fix what
errant neglect had done and

I contemplated the Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain 
like a scab or like a lost blood clot left in the tub from a shower that was too quick
a new period in my life, and one that kept going--
damn the hormones

I

considered being a mermaid for half an hour or an hour
whiling away time under a red light, in a few litres of heat and enlightenment


and I
I

remembered the days when pain was an option and a quaint memory, something that
I

had assumed was part of my past; that

brief

moment of confidence that heartbreak and ache and soreness were behind me was
a long time ago

we
talk about the arrogance of youth all the time but I
knew better then.

And now--
I know better
than to know better.

***

Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out!

Tuesday, 3 May 2016


Black MariaBlack Maria by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is one of my most favorite, to the extent that I don't even talk about it to many people. It's a strange, eerie, weird tale about gender roles and the confining politics of abusive families; it is about loss and witchcraft and hidden things. If you want a mature young adult book that will haunt you, grab this.

View all my reviews 



I've read this book more times than I can count. I can remember the illustrations and quotes, word for word. Some books are read; some are tattooed onto the soul.





***
Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 


Sunday, 24 April 2016

Talking LED Fleshlights: Ex_Machina vs Her

Hello hello!

This is a sort of "Missed It" double-review while I work on the character follow-up to that Story Constellation post. Also, a content warning on this one--since it deals with ladies created by men, there will be some serious discussions of sexual abuse and emotional abuse in the discussion to follow. Reader discretion is advised. It's gonna be a long one, because I haven't blogged in ages.

From now on, I'm going to try a new format for Missed It reviews, which might work better for comparisons. It's called Good, Bad, and Ugly. How does it work? Well, take a peek!

Now, as always, these are reviews of films that have already been released (and have been out for a while, so prepare for


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS 


past this point! First up is Ex_Machina!

Good

Well, at least it tries to open up the whole cerebral can of worms. The score is good, and the editing has that sloppy-unsettling thing going on that's pretty effective. And the visual effects and design, as everyone has commented, are both great. The tension is also very effective, and the actors give it their all. Ava's actress has mastered the delicate ballet dance of grace and fear, and her tiniest movements reflect a music box poetry that is utterly perfect for the role. The small cast makes for a tense and effective story. Everyone else has raved about it, and I was less than thrilled, so I'm going to skim over this bit.



Source. Basically, the movie is this.

Bad


 The film puts on airs of pseudointellectualism and a "pro-feminist" outlook, while drastically undercutting its own premise. I had a look at some other reviews online--something I try not to do--and noticed that the (all male) reviewers were gushing about how smart the movie was. But all of them seemed to miss the weird vibe of the tropes, icky themes that Sarah Dimento and Katie de Long, two of my mentors, noticed quickly.

First, the whole setup is made of toxic tropes. Nathan, the Mad Genius Who Works Alone And Is Therefore Weird And Quirky--playing into gross genius myths--is an abusive phuque. He gaslights Caleb, The Milquetoast Everyman, from moment one of his arrival. He's a repulsive though well-portrayed character, but quite over-written, and uncomfortably like a domineering boyfriend rather than a believeably smart inventor with 'troubling' personality traits. We do love to excuse monsters if they can portray and air of genius, though.

Second, the movie--and critics!--love to talk about how sinister yet sexy Ava is, and her personhood, and how she's a misunderstood femme fatale, using her wiles to survive. But that ignores the visual language of the story, which is more basic (no coding pun intended). Many other bloggers have gone into this ad nauseaum. Ava's design is overly sexualised For Reasons, but let's talk about how those patterns are demonstrated with her and with the beleaguered, abused Kyoko.

There's a grammar to the images: All Women are wired differently from men, they are artificial beings, and they--or femininity--have been designed. Both of them--Ava especially, though--demonstrate exaggeratedly cute performances of femininity, alternating between childlike innocence/obedience (bare feet) and sinister sexiness (spiky, laced stiletto heels). Kyoko's nudity is a sinister display; Ava's is coded as a self-discovery (that also lets the viewer take in a full-length serving of T&A, of course). They are both trapped in their circumstances, constantly being stared at by men--even "good boy" Caleb--and are both servile and rebellious, just enough to be "perfect".

Their only way out is to destroy men or refuse to serve them, either murdering them (as Nathan gets stabbed) or letting them be strangled and suffocated in the prison of the patriarchy with which they have collaborated (Caleb). It's ham-fisted at best, and while it's probably supposed to be acknowledging female suffering, using the super-sexualized language and extreme gender roles kind of undercuts Ava's decision to break out of Nathan's control. Even her self-discovery is done as he watches, and she wears bridal, virginal white and a pair of matching heels.

Ugly


Enough about Ava. Everyone talks about her struggle, but ignores the weird sexual dynamics with the other robot, Kyoko.

Kyoko is literally an objectified Japanese woman who acts as a servant and sexbot, and she does a weird strip-tease that involves peeling away her own flesh. At the end, Nathan even bashes away her lower jaw, making her voicelessness complete. She does watch the surveillance videos and stare at Caleb a lot--she may not be able to talk, but she sure seems to have feelings and opinions. This isn't enough to save her, of course. She's othered constantly, has a Japanese name plunked in a slew of Hebrew ones, and is defined only by her abuse or observation of the other characters. She's allowed no personhood, even by the director, that doesn't revolve around serving/being abused by men, or saving a white woman. In the end, a model with the same body and facial structure as Kyoko is cannibalized for Ava's new skin. Even in death, Kyoko's twin is scavenged for the "untainted", pure Ava,who never even pauses to consider fixing up Kyoko or bringing her back to life.

Not convinced that Kyoko is a servile plot device for Ava, or that Ava is locked in a Biblical narrative? Look at their names!

    A variation of Eve. May be from the Latin "avis," meaning "bird." It could also be a short form of the name Chava ("life" or "living one"), the Hebrew form of Eve. It was popularized as a girls' name by actress AvaGardner.
Looking up Kyoko's name led to even more obvious Symbolism. 

Possible Writings[edit]

The final syllable "ko" is typically written with the kanji character for child, 子. It is a common suffix to female names in Japan. The first syllable "Kyō" can be written several different ways, with different meanings.
  • 恭, "respectful,"
  • 今日, "of today,"
  • 鏡, "mirror,"
  • 響, "echo, can also mean influential,"

Is this trend congruent for the other two characters we see, Nathan and Caleb?

Nathan is a masculine given name. It is derived from the Hebrew verb נתן meaning to give (standard Hebrew Natan, Yiddish Nussen or Nosson, Tiberian Hebrew Nāṯān). The meaning of the name in Jewish culture could be rendered "he [God] has given" or "he will give".

The name Caleb is a Hebrew baby name. In Hebrew the meaning of the name Caleb is: Meaning dog, or bold. 

Well, Caleb was willing to agree that a being which seemed sentient needed to be 'tested' for humanity in the first place, so he's basically on the same level as the guys who insist that women aren't really people unless they can prove otherwise, or can act as objects of love and lust. I'm with Ava, here--might as well let him starve to death.

As far as simple aesthetic ugliness, there's some really stupid shock bits--the closet of sexbots made of parts, videos of Nathan abusing robotic women of colour, and self-harm when Caleb the paper-thin protagonist questions his own humanity. Caleb might as well not exist outside the experiment, and is there just for the sake of initiating the plot and providing an Everyman. The story could just as well have been told through security-camera angled footage as Kyoko and Ava broke out of captivity together, and focused on what happened as the two tried to integrate in a world full of human beings.

Add in the fact that the "experimental design" was at no point clear or good or scientific, especially given Nathan's constant interference with it. Throw in some technophobia as Nathan implies that Facebook (referred to as 'Bluebook') algorithms and surveillance were easily available for him to loot, pillage, and abuse. Mix with a serving of technobabble and the same grey/white palette we've seen elsewhere, and serve at room temperature. The future is scary, and apparently, men can invent a new form of life, but can't do it without abusing toy/pet women.

Final verdict: MEH. It made me think, but I wanted to heckle it. Four out of ten; I don't know if I'd watch it again.


Next up: Her!

Source. This is an actual thing that you can buy. 


Good


We already get more people of colour, and women, talking in the first few minutes of Her than in the entirety of Ex_Machina. There's also a Chris Pratt, which is always okay by me. 

The worldbuilding is done with Black Mirror-style technology, and it's interesting and great. The colour palette is lovely and more pleasant than Ex_Machina's, and unlike the relentlessly dreary Ex_Machina, I got some genuine laughs. Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson sell their roles wonderfully. 

There's something about the story that really speaks to online friendships as well--sharing the world through conversation and pictures alone, but making a real connection nonetheless. In addition, Amy (a friend of Ted's) has a genuine relationship with him that is nurturing but not romantic, and that was such a refresher!

"The past is just a story we tell ourselves."--This is backed up by neuroscience, actually, and that story keeps changing with each retelling. 

From talking about lonely idiot kids online to expectations of motherhood in the form of a "perfect mom" game, to talking about how a perfect computer friend would start to slant expectations, there's a lot of subtle commentary. It's also a less technophobic take on AI, which is refreshing. 

One of the best things about the movie was definitely Samantha's development into a person. She is an artist, a thinker, and a scientist, and an independent spirit. She does not always make things easy. It's hard for me to be objective about problems with her character because I adored her. 


Bad


Twee music, a white mustachio'd mopey guy--Joaquin Phoenix in a hideous mustache--and self-centered writing. Sigh. I do have a soft spot for Manic Pixie Dream Girl reversal stories, and this is definitely one of those. But it still does require a girl who's basically perfect as the starting point, and even though said girl goes on to attain personhood, or reveals her personhood--it's always based on the white, nerdy, lonely guy's perspective in the first place. As usual, said nerdy lonely guy exists in a sphere full of crazy, skinny, quirky white ladies.

Being around "Her", Sam the AI (Scarlett), is what makes Ted (Joaquin)start being a better person. Does that mean people need love to fix themselves? He does actually get a chance to learn how to ask good questions from Sam, though, and that's an important skill. She does rub off on him, but it still plays into that "romance will fix you" thing.

There's a scene with an "OS Surrogate" that ends up being kind of awkward yet hilarious, and really gets into the realistic issues of a threeway that involves a couple. But it comes with a hefty dose of whorephobia ("What is she, a prostitute?" "No, no, nothing like that!") and ends up confirming that Monogamy Is Good. What if that whole bit had worked out? Would it really have been so bad for non-monogamy to get some representation?

This bears fruit later, as well, when Samantha confesses that she is in love with 641 other people and is talking to over eight thousand other people regularly. It makes sense that an AI would not be able to live within traditional monogamy.

Ugly


There's something about an amazingly average guy in a movie and the calibre of women offered to him--the more average he is, the hotter and more amazing the chicks that the plot thrusts before him.

I also really don't know how to feel about the sex scene--it's tasteful, I guess, but I sure felt embarrassed by the intimacy. ScarJo also has a voice similar to my cousin's, and that really threw me into the awkward zone. YIKES.

I guess the really haunting question is--as a woman who becomes real grows beyond her boundaries, is it okay that she started as a literal object? Objectification is one thing, but this is that, in reverse--in a way, at least.

The main character's wife, at a divorce meeting, throws in a few shots about how he 'wanted to put her on Prozac' and insulted him for 'dating a computer', but in context, it really fits into some negative stereotypes about relationships and genders. It's very awkward to hear characters going through emotionally avoidant patterns.

Later, this bears fruit because he does say some pretty emotionally abusive things to Sam--"maybe we're not supposed to be in this", and "you're not a person". He takes his feelings about his wife's rejection and criticism, and turns them at Samantha in a very hurtful way; then the movie makes it all about *his* problems. He does learn to be a better person, but only because the women in his life ease him into it.

Part of me wanted the film to be about Amy instead of Ted--about her breakdown with her human partner, and her development into a person. But I did love Ted and Sam's story--even if I really hated the ending. As always, with Manic Pixie Dream Girl movies, it ends with tragedy. She is too perfect and brilliant, and she and the other OS people leave all the humans to go, I don't know, be god or exist beyond matter, or something. This leaves Ted wiser but sadder and more of a person. I hated that, because it felt kind of cheap; and if Samantha could meet her needs with other people, why not just let them have their happy ending?

Final Verdict: This is a tough one. I'm in three moods about it. Eight out of ten because I almost cried, but it didn't break Manic Pixie Dream Girl tropes down as much as it could have.

The big finale: Both movies compliment each other very well, but could have been so much more if white twee nerd dudes weren't the focal PoV characters. Some day, we will move beyond robot women who are talking LED Fleshlights, but this is not that day.

***
Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 


Monday, 14 March 2016

Story Constellation Theory: Epic Plotting


Hello hello!

I have a very special treat for you all, and a return to form. That's right; I'm talking about writing again!

Last night, I was talking with a close friend about his epic dark fantasy series. He was having trouble pinning down plot points, and so was I. It wasn't an unfamiliar problem--how do you narrow down all those people and events to just one storyline? It seemed impossible, and I realised slowly that--it actually was impossible.

I had an idea for epic-scale fantasy novels with many characters, to make them easier to write. I realised that the problem is because authors are thinking two-dimensionally, trying to pin a big, epic story down to this:



Source. Look at that thing! Everything after the climax is a mysterious disaster. 


Plot mountain sucks


Epic stories are often hard to follow--no matter what genre they're in--because a lot is happening. Most of those books kinda fall apart because of too many plot threads and really badly balanced tension and characters enough to populate a small town. Fantasy, sci fi, even historical fiction. War and Peace is like that. Gabaldon's stories are a mess, structurally.

I know why. The problem is that with an epic-length story, the plot mountain falls apart. What works fine for a smaller novel does NOT work for the large scale. There are too many elements, too many people, to glue down to just one plot mountain shape.

Authors are thinking two-dimensionally when they need to think three-dimensionally.



Source. Look at all the stars!


Galaxies do not suck


So, think about a galaxy. Big, sparkly, lots of stars. The way we organize that in our heads is to focus on the bright stars and make a constellation around them. Then we figure out the other largish stars in the constellation/formation, and then find the other stellar bodies. Often, said constellations overlap, too. So for a story that is epic in scale, that's basically a galaxy or at least a spiral arm.

So take your bright stars--those are the main characters; not one, but many. Say, five or six at least, or three or four. You get it. If you focus on the character links between those stars, you can map a three-dimensional constellation into 2-D. Then, for those characters--if one focuses on the secondary characters, more constellations appear. Around those characters, other "stellar bodies", tertiary and quaternary characters, also appear. If you look for where those tertiary and quaternary characters actively eclipse the primary and secondary characters, you can figure out which ones to write about, and when. That way authors don't end up describing every goddamn servant in the castle, even the one who empties the slops, unless they're relevant to the relationships.




MS Paint is awesome, okay? Shut up. 



Relationships first. Events are side-effects of relationships.


Figuring out how characters connect to each other IS the plot. Slowly adding those secondary and tertiary characters ALSO helps the problem of focusing too much on the main characters, so that the author and reader get bored of them. It also makes the effects of the conflict more personal and far less abstract. In a war or in any epic conflict--the plotty stuff people struggle with is a l l b u l l s h i t. Wars are made of people. Nations are a fiction. Authors lose track of the fact that stories are made of PEOPLE, because they keep trying to follow the plot mountain and escalate the tension the way they would with a normal book. But the plot mountain isn't sustainable over a long series. Story constellation theory is, because it relies on links between characters, and provides clear points for bringing in side characters--whenever they're involved in the main plot.

The other advantage is that it de-centralizes the idea of a "main plot", something that falls apart in most epic-length series. With several constellations to work from at the same time, authors can relax and space out their pacing, because readers will care about more than just the "main" storyline.

What constitutes a relationship? 


Well, basically anything that constitutes a normal relationship, of course! Friendships, coworkers, romance, antagonism, casual acquaintance; any of those can be represented by one of those lines. A duchess (secondary character) might have three personal servants (tertiary characters), one of whom is sleeping with the cook (secondary character) that is the princess (primary character)'s best friend. The princess might be affianced to a princess from another kingdom (secondary character) even though she is secretly in love with the slightly older Swordmistress (primary character), who is secretly arranging a rebellion to overthrow the princess's corrupt father, the King (secondary character with a lot of intersections, including both secondary and tertiary characters). There may also be quaternary characters, people who walk on or sell someone a purse, etc. They only need to be mentioned as character relationships require them. 

By moving a novel's structure away from events, and onto characters, it's so much simpler to write out. Outlines focus on the sequence of events in the context of the relationship, not just the chronological way things happen. Considering that authors often have to move around the chronology of scenes to make more sense, relating them to character's emotions rather than arbitrary occurrences like a war makes MUCH more sense. Besides--the war might not happen if a different relationship prevents it. And as stated, a war is something that happens between people; it is basically an abstract thing.

Focusing on relationships also helps authors keep themselves from getting too married to plot points, and from losing the small details in pursuit of the big events. If you write about the experiences of a farmer (secondary character) who wants to take care of his family (tertiary or quaternary characters), and therefore enlists as a soldier, then about his slow trek back home and the innkeeper (secondary or tertiary) he falls in love with while recuperating, that gives a reader an idea of the scope of events better than "and then a big fight happened" ever could. Describing the way his relationship with his best friend (tertiary) changes, the way he no longer visits a shopkeeper (tertiary or quaternary character) every Saturday for his paper, also add more realism. 

It is characters we remember, and we shape events around them in our minds. Isn't it time that epic fantasy and other genres caught up with the human mind and soul? We are social animals, and stories are the byproducts of our countless moments of love and hate. This model, the story constellation theory, accounts for that as no other can.

***
Thanks for returning to the nest. Leave a comment and say hi! I want to hear from you. Keep up with the new releases by getting on the mailing list. Buy my books on Amazon, and keep up with me on TwitterFacebookTumblr, and the original blog. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 



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