Saturday, May 03, 2014

Ex Libris: Lucius Shepard's The Beast of the Heartland and Other Stories

I wonder if other readers feel the way I do, that I've come to a certain milestone when my favorite writers-- those whose books had changed my reading life-- pass on. I suppose I'm just feeling my age especially after I heard of Lucius Shepard's death this year.

I read his story collection The Jaguar Hunter first: strangely enough, I had no idea what to expect based on the recommendations I read-- except that he was a great writer. And maybe that was a good thing because when I did start reading him, I realized that he wasn't just writing speculative fiction, it was great Fiction that had the punch of several quick open-palm slams to the face, chest, and groin that would send you reeling to your knees but with tears of joy in your eyes.

His prose was a wonderful combination of hard-hitting, hardbitten, almost-practical realism with flashes of literary turn of phrases (what would be termed magical realism). His stories were mostly genre, sometimes with twists that would leave you gasping for breath, but otherwise were genre-less for the oh-so human characterizations of his protagonists.

So yes, I think that regardless of what I say or do from this point onward, I think I will always remain a fanboy of Shepard's work.

That's why in commemoration of the man, I dug out my still-to-be-read collection of his works and started reading his other story collection, The Beast of the Heartland and Other Stories. (On a side note, it took me a long while scouring the bargain bins for a copy of this collection. I once missed out buying the UK edition of this book, Barnacle Bill the Spacer and Other Stories, at the local Fully-Booked and I've always regretted it because it matches the third collection I have of his, The Ends of the Earth. But I digress.)

Regardless of how I felt about each story in this collection, every beginning of his stories was a wonder. That is, I would always think a few words into the story, "I wonder what this will be about." And why not, when you have such wonderful opening lines to begin with. To wit, from "Barnacle Bill the Spacer":
"The way things happen, not the great movements of time but the ordinary things that make us what we are, the savage accidents of our births, the simple lusts that because of whimsy or a challenge to one's pride become transformed into complex tragedies of love, the heartless operations of change, the wild sweetness of other souls that intersect the orbits of our lives, travel along the same course for a while, then angle off into oblivion, leaving no formal shape for us to consider, no easily comprehensible pattern from which we may derive enlightenment..."
Or, from "A Little Night Music":
"'Dead men can't play jazz.'"
Fascinating, no? Makes you want to read more.

Each story in the collection varies in genre: drugged-surreal religious horror in "A Little Night Music"; a post-apocalyptic tale "Human History" that seems to be the ancestor of Cormac McCarthy's The Road; the very noir "Sports in America" that calls up Raymond Chandler but reminds me of Patricia Highsmith as well; and a story about a boxer on the decline that seems to be ripped out of the pages of GQ or Esquire, "The Beast of the Heartland."

So yeah, I'm in like Flynn, regardless of how each story ends. Thus, rather than letting me blather on and on how wonderful this collection is, it's better if I'll sign off. Heaven knows if you don't think that I think the man was a great writer, then nothing I write will convince you.

Get thee to a bookstore and buy it! (Four paws out of four.)

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Cheap Stuff

This should teach me to buy cheap. Lesson learned I guess.

Over the holidays I bought a 9" Polaroid tablet via Lazada because of the cheap price tag on it: Php 4,149 (US$93.29). For a small tablet I could use primarily as a comic book/ebook reader. Not bad, right?

Unfortunately, I didn't do a physical check of the unit before I bought it-- not even to check at the shops that were selling the product. So when I got the tablet, suffice to say I was pretty disappointed. The Android OS was slow, the touch screen glass wasn't that responsive and could be easily scratched, and the casing was made of plastic so it felt light-- and cheap.

But I made do with it, and at least it was lightweight enough for me to carry around. Unfortunately, one time I knocked my bag which had the tablet against a jeepney handle while I was commuting and-- boom! I later discovered when I got home that the impact had cracked the surface.

Bloody effin cheap stuff. Ah well...

Friday, February 21, 2014

Ex Libris: Warren Ellis' Gun Machine

In the City of Fiction, there is a street that runs two-way. One heads toward the suburb of Comics while the other goes to the bohemian district of the Novel. On this street, there are writers who live in the suburbs: these comic book writers have made a name for themselves in their field like Mark Millar, Matt Fraction, Gail Simone, Garth Ennis, Geoff Johns, and Grant Morrison.

But there are also a few comic book writers who commute and are currently working in the Novel district.* Most notable among those are Neil Gaiman, Mike Carey, Peter David, and Alan Moore dipping his pen onto the pages of the fray. And then, of course, there's Warren Ellis.

I enjoyed Ellis' first novel, Crooked Little Vein, and though he topped that book to the brim with fascinating ideas like the way he did with his comic books, I thought the shift from comic books to books had lessened the sharpness of his writing. His protagonist Michael McGill--though while interesting-- didn't have the weight of his other characters like Spider Jerusalem, Elijah Snow or Jenny Sparks. It was all firework showers but no big bang of the gonzo reporting in the future of Transmetropolitan, the "archaeologists of the impossible" in Planetary, or the worldwide spanning rescue organization in the Global Frequency.

Gun Machine fortunately shows Ellis settling into his role as a novelist by limiting himself to a handful of particular concepts. Here, NYPD detective John Tallow finds a mystery when his partner is killed by a wacko with a gun in a dilapidated apartment. Though Tallow takes down the shooter, a stray shot reveals the contents of the unit next door: a veritable shrine of guns filling the apartment from floor to ceiling, all of the weapons linked to a decade's worth of unsolved murders in the city.

Shifting perspective, Ellis reveals these killings were done by a prolific serial killer named The Hunter who has let himself be hired by a group of people to take down anyone that stands in their path. The Hunter is another interesting creation by Ellis: the killer perceives Manhattan through two different times, the current age and a pre-New York wilderness. Moreover, The Hunter believes that if he somehow completes his shrine, he would be able to supernaturally return the city back to its Eden-like state.  

The good news is that with Gun Machine, Ellis has created a fascinating, sometimes amusing, detective thriller, a "cat-and-mouse" chase as Tallow tries to find The Hunter through the Ellis-weird streets of New York City. He even manages to introduce an endearingly weird pair of CSI characters to act as the story's score card. But unlike Crooked Little Vein which switched back-and-forth between the Weird Americana (reminiscent of Planetary) and snappy political commentary (natch, Transmetropolitan) so fast you would have gotten whiplash, Ellis keeps the plot together this time and brings it all the way to a nice, proper end.

The bad news is that, like Crooked Little Vein, this story still felt slight such that I didn't feel totally involved in the story. Essentially, I get the feeling that Ellis' novel-writing skills isn't all there yet. Maybe that's the problem with comic book writers-turned-novelists. In comic books, there's really no chance for the writer's voice to be heard. And that's okay-- because for comic books, it's the artist's skill that recreates the narrative in the reader's mind.

However, in novels, it's the writer's voice that delivers the narrative. Think of a number of characters' voices in comic books-- say, Jerusalem Spider of Transmetropolitan or Yorick Brown of Y the Last Man. These aren't the voices of the writers but of the creations themselves. In novels, the writer's voice or the voice of the narrative is distinct from those of the characters.

But despite the two novel-misses so far, Ellis still remains hands-down one of the best idea man/writer in the business regardless of the medium (i.e. comics or books). You can actually see how much he's improved his skills from one book to the next and that's why I'm still game to try out his next book.

Your mileage may vary. (Two paws out of four.)

*Yes, I know there are novelists who have tried their skill writing comic books, like Joe Hill, Clive Barker, and Chris Roberson. Likewise, most of these writers still go back and forth this street writing comic books and/or novels. Bear with me on this metaphor.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

My Dreaming, Imagination, and Self

I think there is a kind of delicious irony in that if we Filipinos do take part in a grand journey to Mars, this would be the first time that we Filipinos would be colonizers rather than the colonizees.
Who, me, a futurist?

That was my reaction when I read my interview with GMA-7 on the idea of Filipinos going to Mars. Heavenssake, I never thought myself as a futurist, only a guy who has an opinion on everything (though I only mention it if asked).

Ironically, I'm somewhat amused by the whole idea because if there's one thing I can say about myself, I've never actually had a dream for myself. Is that so strange? That someone who seems to have a wild (or at least varied) imagination would be so... unimaginative about oneself? Probably, though I've heard that some writers-- at least the ones who write such imaginative fare-- can be quite ordinary in real life. See exhibit A: James Thurber and his supposed alter ego, Walter Mitty.

I had this particular fact about myself thrown right in my face during an HR seminar three years ago, when the one conducting it asked us to imagine what our future would be like in 10-15 years. Thinking about it then, I remember feeling at a loss. It's only later that I realized: I couldn't imagine myself in the future because even way back then, when I was in high school or college, I couldn't imagine myself as anything... but myself.

See, that's the thing: I couldn't imagine myself as a doctor or a lawyer or even a psychologist-- though at different times of my life, I aspired to be those things. But what I held on then-- and what I hold on to now-- is though I couldn't imagine myself as anything, I always knew who I was and who I was would always hold true then... and now. You could say I was a diabolical version of Walter Mitty: full of intense drama but always unaffected by it.

That's not to say I'm an open book about myself. I still discover different-- sometimes surprising-- realizations about myself. However, I would eventually realize that these discoveries-- after some careful thought-- are actually facets of my personality that I've already accepted about myself. So yeah: surprise, 0; me, 1.    

So if ever you get to meet me outside the online world, ask me about a lot of things, but don't ask me about myself. Trust me, you'll get more about me when you do that.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

PAID POST: Grammarly Keeps You Original

It may be strange for me to admit that I can do paid posts. But then again, if it's a good product, why not? And to be honest, I like the idea that there are anti-plagiarism services like these keeping us writers and those who write honest. Think about it: it would be easy to avoid doing a Sotto if some staff writers had done their job properly. (YOU JUST HAD ONE JOB, DAMMIT.)

So: yes, I've tried out and would recommend Grammarly's plagiarism checker-- free of charge, which is always nice-- because it's never a good thing to be a Senator of the Republic and be caught plagiarizing from bloggers in today's Internet Age. Just. No. Seriously.

What, you don't think the Internet is watching what you say? If you don't, then you have another think coming.

Ex Libris: Felix Gilman's The Half-Made World

When I traveled to the US for the first time several years ago, I had the strangest realization. Moving from one state to another, I felt that US as a country-- for all of its traditions and age-- was still a young one.

I came to this realization because my first travels abroad were to Asia and Europe. In those countries, you could feel the history of the land in every step you take where the next corner held a castle or temple. (Well, except for Singapore, which felt relatively "new" but you could sense that its traditions were more than likely borrowed from its neighboring countries.) In the US, you could say their mythology flourished in the early days of its industrialization, before science and technology cleared away all ambiguity and mystery.

I make this point because if there's one subgenre I'm fascinated, it's the fantastical mirror of American history of the Old West, which some have tagged as "Weird West". (Digression: I say "mirror" here in the same sense that epic fantasy supposedly mirrors-- however distorted-- the European Medieval period with its kings and wars and dragons. It may be funny to say this but I actually gained a sense of history of other countries because of the fantasy genre, which mostly focuses on the European kind.)

Two examples of the Weird West subgenre that easily come to mind is Mark Sumner's Devil's Tower (which had magic coming into the world during the American Civil War) and Stephen King's Dark Tower series (which mashes up the Old West as a Byronic fantasy land with six-guns). Unfortunately, this American mythology rewritten into a type of Old West fantasy comes in few and far in between. Fortunately, now there's Felix Gilman's The Half-Made World, which makes a good try in envisioning a steampunkish/Weird West.

In The Half-Made World, there are two factions vying for the making of the newly-shaped Western lands. On one hand, there is the Line, a dark retelling of the industrialized American North circa the Civil War under the influence of dark gods of order in the shape of demonic train engines who lay tracks across the new territories. Though these gods offer their followers a science that drives the smoke-belching engines of the new age, the price of the new order leaves their worshipers nearly mad.

On the other hand, there are the Agents of the Gun, a cult-like loose group of outlaws and murderers (both men and women) who bear supernatural spirits in their totem-like guns. These guns bequeath their Agents powers, from strength and speed, fast healing and near-invulnerability (though they can be killed). These Agents sow chaos across the land in the cause of their singular independence from any authority-- and sometimes even from their own guns.    

As the story opens, a third faction has just been crushed by the Line and the Gun, a group of towns that called themselves the Red Republic and had gloriously refused to align themselves to either factions. In the dying days of the Republic, its famous general had been driven mad by the bombs of the Line just as he discovered a secret that could give either factions a power against each other-- or destroy both of them completely.

Into this story comes Doctor Liv Alverhuysen, a psychologist escaping the death of her husband and her sheltered life in the civilized cities of the East by treating the maddened victims of the war. Crossing her path is John Creedmore, an Agent sent to find the general, even as the forces of the Line go on the march.  

Like other works that have preceded his, Gilman creates a creative analogue of the American Old West mythology that envisions the clash of the anarchy and free spirit of the Wild West against the Age of Industrialization that had descended on the US. Moreover, Gilman plays no favorites among the two factions: Liv has equal chances of being killed by either the lone gunman Creedmore or by the low-level Line officer Lowry and the army he leads.

However, even the characters carry the externalized conflict of the Gun and the Line (i.e. order versus chaos) within them as Gilmore avoids the easy generalizations. Creedmore may be an old Agent, a feat worthy of the description for the simple reason that despite their powers, they are still too few against their enemies and they can still die. But Creedmore is disillusioned by the freedom given him by his demonic overlords and wants only to be free of their control. On the other hand, Lowry is a cog in a giant machine. But like Walter Mitty living in an Orwellian 1984-like society, he rationalizes away his drive for glory by going after Creedmore and Liv as simply "following orders".

But The Half-Made World isn't just about conceptualization and world-building as Gilman deftly writes a good story, juggling the main narrative with enough flashback scenes to flesh out the characters. He then brings up the level of drama to compensate for the slight drag in the chase scene partway through the book, giving us a look at how Creedmore and Lowry would act separate from their gods. Sometimes it seems like Gilman is rambling far too slow with his story but he ties the narrative back together again.

All in all, Gilman scores high points with this book, from the main idea to the story. Though he fills in the external background of Eastern cities in rough sketches, he more than makes it up by creating a stark picture of the new Western lands in the process of being born despite the ravages of war, easy violence, slavery, and ignorance. Likewise, he easily fields questions about the price of free will and the blind worship of gods (whether supernatural, scientific or philosophical) via the characters' expressions and actions.

A good read. (Three paws out of four.)   

UPDATE: Here's a more recent review by Kirkus of Weird West stories out in the wilds.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

What Game of Thrones House do you belong to?

Because everyone needs a Games of Thrones House, right?

Seriously, I can't believe how a simple sigil made me assess myself so much. Makes me think that I've been overworking myself when I start to think in terms of branding. Argh.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Curious Cat Question: Unhand my Culture, Varlet!

After watching Quentin Tarrantino's "Django Unchained", I wondered what discussions had been set-off by Tarrantino's alt-history/revenge fantasy movie. After all, Tarrantino's a white guy doing a movie about blacks in American history; I'm sure this has to stick in someone's craw.

A quick google-check soon pointed me to director Spike Lee's criticism of the movie despite not having seen it, to wit (or tweet): 
American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them. 
(Quick survey question: Is an opinion justified if the person hasn't seen the movie or read the book? Let's also thrown in books like "Fifty Shades of Grey" and "Twilight" into the discussion pot and let simmer for an hour.)

My first thought about this was: would it have made a difference to Spike Lee if a black man had directed the movie? Obviously, the fact that Tarrantino's white was be a sore point. But were there other factors that would make such cultural appropriation of black history in America by a white man despite the movie's satirical, almost absurdist viewpoint-- um, unappropriate? Or is the color of the skin enough?

Ask a question, find the answer. I like the point raised by this review, which wonders why is Tarrantino giving his white audience an "escape hatch" from the historical crimes with the 'Good White Man' as opposed to the more black-and-white "Inglorious Bastards". Would the movie have been better if it was more unforgiving? Given that Tarrantino didn't pull any punches with his anti-Nazi movie "Inglorious Bastards", it's pretty interesting he took this direction with "Django Unchained". 

Personally and after some long thought, I suppose my main problem with the movie is Tarrantino's basis for his alt-western: it's not based on actual history but rather on Movie History, with its obvious influences in spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation films. Think about it: if you're going to present a skewed version of history, maybe your perspective shouldn't be skewed enough to begin with, right? Tarrantino's use of Movie History as the lens to create his own skewed history unfortunately distorts whatever message he's trying to convey to the point that all the images come out looking like they're from Bizarro-World. 

Undoubtedly, questions like these interest me because of concerns raised about writing and cultural appropriation. I've read a bit of the blog Requires Only That You Hate and its intense hatred of Western appropriation, specifically by Paolo Bacigalupi. Here, I thought the parallelism of Tarrantino's situation especially apt: can someone (white, Westerner) not from a particular world (black, Asian) write about that world?

The answer I've heard in return is always: yes, but with respect and understanding. But who's going to judge? What is the standard of respect and understanding? After all, to skew an old saying, one's white man's burden is another white man's escape hatch, right? In Tarrantino's case, was he respectful of the material-- or the history? 

What do you think?