Fishing the Styx – Coming Soon From Argo Navis Publishing (Update: Published!)


by Kenneth Mark Hoover

Copyright 2011 by Kenneth Mark Hoover

Argo Navis Publishing

“Hell is truth seen too late.”  —Thomas Hobbes

1. The Leviathan

   Keep going, Sayeth the demon.

Past the iron shore where pale arms whip the water into black foam. Through the blast furnace radiating from the crying walls of Dis. Far beyond the soft, red glow emanating from Deep Hell.

Paddle until your shoulders ache, and your heart shatters, and you are underneath tortured green clouds scudding over what was once the horizon.

Here, and only here, the river water slackens and tires. Runs still, and deep, and darkest.

Lean over and you will see a glimmer of all that ever was.

You will see the stars.


A story of science fiction, horror, and heroic rebellion exclusive to your Kindle and Kindle Fire: Fishing the Styx:


SWOTR: Imperial Agent Snipes Her Way to Success

Another class I was thinking of playing when SWOTR comes out is the Imperial Agent. This class kind of interests me because it doesn’t depend on the glowstick for combat. Like all the other classes Imperial Agent bifurcates into two progression channels, the Operative and the Sniper. I was thinking I might like to play the sniper because that class seems like it operates on the edges of the fight and might offer something other than your usual hammer-fest.

Of course, this is all just thinking out loud on my part. I don’t know if I will get the game and if I do when I will have time to play. But I do remember that post awhile back how it was so relaxing to get out from under the word processor and relax by playing a game. Eh, we will see. I am not beholden to anything other than writing at the moment.

We will see how it all shakes out.

SWTOR: Consular Sage Kicks Butt in Spiffy Science Fiction Baroque Style

As many of you know I am looking for a new game to play. I quit WOW a while back and stopped playing Eve Online when they took away ship spinning. *Mark has sad face* I’ve dabbled in a few other MMO’s like Age of Conan and Lord of the Rings Online, and while the last game is absolutely beautiful looking and I like Hobbits I haven’t been swept away by the game play.

That might all change when Star Wars: The Old Republic is released on December 20 of this year. You can play a bunch of different types of characters. I was thinking about playing the Imperial Agent (with a sniper specialty) until I saw this trailer. It’s of the Jedi Consular Sage and hoo boy does she kick tail while dressed like a Baroque queen. I mean, how can that not be fun, right, kicking the hell out of people while dressed in style?

The trailer starts off showing the basic Consular and then how you can pick one of two paths: the Shadow or the Sage. I haven’t completely given up on playing the Imperial Agent (essentially a spy) but boy oh boy would it be awesome to go around kicking butt while wearing this Lucretia Borgia gear. A lot of fans of the game are ragging on her robes and head gear, but I think it’s rich from a story line viewpoint and gives the class a very different look from the usual armor.

Anyway, here’s the trailer if you want to take a peek. The music is awesome, too. I am no Star Wars fan by any stretch of the imagination. In fact I pretty much despise the mythos. But I am looking for a fun game. I think I might give this one a try.

This novel is a tough challenge, but that’s why I want to write it

One of the things I have to keep reminding myself is writing a novel is a marathon. Another thing I have to keep in mind while working on this new project is “Don’t hold back.”

As I write this I keep coming up against a mental block that makes me stop, and I have to switch mental gears and tell myself “No, this is a different kind of story, don’t hold back.”

There is no doubt this new novel is a big challenge which is why I wanted to tackle it in the first place. If I were writing yet another Haxan novel it wouldn’t be this difficult. I already know the voice for those stories. But I am attempting to do something different here. I may be unsuccessful. The novel may be unpublishable. But I am confident it needs to be written, if that makes any sense.

I admit I am having fun shattering cliches with this project. Every time I feel “Hollywood” coming on I peel in the other direction. But it’s tough, it’s tough.

The novel may even anger a lot of people. I don’t care about that, either. It has to be written — at least for my sanity if for no other reason. I’m a writer. I’m not out to be liked and loved. I’m out to tell the truth and that’s what I’m attempting to do with this new western.

Meh, we’ll see if I can even write it. It’s a challenge, that’s for sure, but I am enjoying the new ways I am thinking about the west and how to bring it to light. The mental aspect if that exercise is fun, the rest is donkey work.

I remember when every SF book I read the story was new. And now….

I’ve read a lot of science fiction in my lifetime.  Maybe I’ve read too much.

It seems I’ve reached a point of diminishing returns.  The science fiction field isn’t that large. You can pretty much exhaust it if you read voraciously.  Then you move on to the magazines, but after a while you realize you’re reading the same story over and over, so you put them aside, too.

Then you reach a point where you pick up a new novel, try it out, discover it doesn’t hold up to the wealth of fiction already packed and chambered in your fevered little brain.  You feel disappointed.  Like there’s nothing out there worth reading at all.

I’ve read a lot of fiction. There’s damn little genre fiction I haven’t read.  Let me rephrase that: There’s damn little important genre fiction I haven’t read. No sense wasting time with writers who are trying to reinvent the wheel.

So lately I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction, almost exclusively, along with rereads of novels I liked as a kid or a young adult in a desperate attempt to recapture that early sensawunda.  It never happens, though.  Okay, rarely.  But the emotions aren’t as strong as they once were. That’s to be expected from comfort reading.

And, please, don’t come to me with the “science fiction is twelve” argument because I know crap when I see it, whether I was twelve or an ancient Mr. Grumpy.

I guess that’s all part of growing up but I’m kind of bummed about it.

Flapper Talk and the Reflection of Language on Human Culture

As a writer I am fascinated by processes which shape and form human thoughts and ideas in a social context. This interests me because as a writer I feel it is my duty to present human beings in their full and unadulterated light. Therefore, as we study different cultures and ideas, we see patterns and similarities. I believe this can only benefit a writer in the long term.

The more we learn about a point in time of human history, the better we can extrapolate how people thought and acted in other historical frames. I fully believe this and have always used this philosophy in writing fiction. (It particularly helps when writing science fiction, which at its core is a genre of ideas and extrapolation.)

As to fundamental changes in social process, it can take shape in disparate historical moments which come together and  form a new dynamic which ushers in sweeping cultural changes, even right down to the very language itself. Being a writer this is where my main focus lies: in language.

Case in point: Flappers from the 1920s.

As a social phenomena viewed through the lens of an amateur student of history,  this period interests me on many levels, including but not restricted to: rebellion against social mores, questioning of authority, religion, government, and ultimately, questioning oneself.

The language of flappers encapsulates what I am trying to get at here. The mode of language (which itself mirrors the faster pace and rhythmic values of the Jazz music it was patterned after) is itself removed from the surface meaning it carries. What I mean by this is, a flapper can say one thing by stringing along what appear to be separate and meaningless phrases, yet from its entirety present whole new concepts which have nothing to do with the individual phrases. Sometimes, the separate meaning even distances itself from what one might consider to be the meaning of the gestalt phrase.

It’s really quite incredible. That’s not just language. That’s creativity on a word level. I’m a professional writer. I find that absolutely  fascinating.

To be sure, some of this was pure dodge by the flapper. She could converse about things hitherto considered taboo by an older generation or religious figures who tried to control her life. They heard her speak and it either sounded like gibberish (which it never was, it was carefully crafted) or the meaning they heard was not the meaning the flapper meant. They heard something innocuous, but the flapper was actually describing an event she wanted to remain hidden. So the flapper could speak and move about in a society she was rebelling against, talking openly about the things she wanted to talk about. Only others who were clued in to the patterns and rhythms of speech could decode her true message, and relate on the philosophical plane the flapper was accessing.

This activity was not exclusive to flappers. The Valley Girl slang from the 1980s is another, albeit more recent, example. There are myriad examples throughout human history and they are not exclusively female oriented. I’m choosing the flapper craze because I find the total rebellion which came in concert with the attitude of the flapper as an event I can understand, and sympathize with.

I have always maintained a healthy society is one which questions authority in all things. There is also a personal aspect to my interest in flappers from reading something at a very early age which engaged both my humor and my interest, but that is an essay for another day, perhaps.

The vocabulary of the flapper (and her male companion who picked up on the language and used it) is beyond the scope of this essay. But I would be remiss if I didn’t give one example. I provide it here:

“Check the darb flatwheeler in the red dog kennels. He dropped the pilot on his blue serge, and now he’s manacled to a biscuit.”

Thus the translation:

“Look at that wonderful young man in those red shoes who is accompanying that young girl. He divorced his old wife, but now he’s married to a very pretty girl who likes to pet (engages in sexual contact but no intercourse) with other men.”

As you can see, the flapper was able to talk about things considered taboo in the society she was actively engaged in liberating herself from. And she did not only use language, the flapper style and look and behavior combined a total package of liberation and iron-willed rebellion against authority.

That rebellion and the shape (literally) it took, will be the topic of a future essay on flappers, and their impact on sexual, religious, and political history.

The language of the flapper was itself an expression of liberation from authority and sexual constraint.

Woot! My Sample Story Page on WordPress: “Portraits of Madame Skalla”

Mark here. I have included a new Sample Story Page for my WordPress blog for those who may be interested in that kind of thing. You can click the link below or find the appropriate link on the right side of my blog under “Pages.” I mean, you guys know how to do this, right? I’m willing to bet you’re more facile than I am when it comes to this fancy schmancy technology.

I’m still astonished at these here microwaves. Arthur C. Clarke was right. It’s like magic! 😛

I have further plans to publish some of my backlog stories and novels, but this horror story is free and will always remain that way. It’s called ” Portraits of Madame Skalla” and I hope you enjoy it.

Thanks! 🙂



A Story Cannot Exist Without A World

Every time you write a story you create a world.
When you write a story you create a world.
It’s a simple idea at its core. You take the reader by the hand and say, “Here is a place I want you to visit. A place you can believe in. Something will happen here. I want to share it with you.”

Writers talk about world building all the time. Especially genre writers. But I believe every writer creates a world when he writes a story. It is a microcosm of what might be, or what is, or what was…but it is a world, make no mistake about that. No matter how long or how short, that story you present is part of a world.

Of course, we are familiar with the big examples. Dune by Frank Herbert comes to my mind when we talk about world building in SF. You can live in that world. It’s full and rich and there’s weight to it.

Dune is a real place. You can live there. Die there. Love there.

For fantasy I always think of Middle-Earth. Deep history, language, races, culture, creation story….that’s a living, breathing world. You can live there, too, thanks to Tolkien’s imagination.

All fiction is rich with worlds we can live, and believe, in. And, with some stories, there are worlds you don’t want to live in. They are too mean and nasty, like 1984 by George Orwell. But, even with their crushing horror, they are no less fascinating.

These are obvious examples. I’m arguing every story has a world, even if it’s only background support, or stagecraft. For the story to work, the world has to work. Even if it’s no more than window dressing, or a simple stage which allows the story to progress.

A story cannot exist without a world. If the story is about non-existence, that framework in which the story exists must be believable. The non-existence must be believed by the reader. The psychological underpinnings must have some fundamental truth to them or the story won’t work.

Worse, the reader will feel cheated. There aren’t many cardinal sins in writing, but cheating the reader is definitely one of them.

So the long and short is, every time you write a story you make a world. The trick is to make the world believable enough to support the story you are trying to tell in turn. I’m not saying this is easy.

I’m simply arguing it’s necessary.

Great article in Centauri Dreams: explains fallibility of Fermi’s Paradox, human impatience

“Lost in Space and Lost in Time: The Consequences of Temporal Dispersion for Exosolar Technological Civilizations” by Dave Moore, Centauri Dreams.

Mark here. This is an excellent article. I have always believed the problem lies more with our human-centralized impatience to “find idealized Star Trek aliens” rather than the simple fact we A.) are alone, or B.) the enormous spacial and temporal distances involved simply preclude a galaxy burgeoning with sentient lifeforms that mirror our own spatial-temporal frame.

In other words, the chances of advanced alien lifeforms inhabiting the same time-frame of our own civilization, given the age and enormous volume of the universe at hand, is pretty damn slim, and more likely zero.I fully expect this scenario is pure fantasy and wish-fulfillment. Occam's Razor is more than likely in effect: we're alone.

I maintain we will find microbial alien life, or come across archeological evidence of another civilization, long before we meet another  alien species face to face. You cannot ignore the time frame and galactic spacial distances involved, especially when coupled with the life spans of civilizations in relation to that.

Humans need to stop thinking in such limited and parochial terms. Even our galaxy isn’t a neighborhood. It’s enormous, enclosing both enormous time frames and distances. Once again, the ingrained impatience of our species is showing.

If you want to get down and dirty about it, Occam’s Razor is probably best here. We are alone. Star Trek, a federation of alien civilizations who exist at the same spatial-temporal point in their technological curve, is pure fantasy and will never be actualized. The actual age, and distances involved, preclude such an event. The distribution and rates of occurrence of alien civilizations are much too thin.

Suspension of Disbelief: Not the Rubicon You Thought It Was

The more I study opera the more I learn about suspension of disbelief at least as far as writing goes, and the human propensity for engaging in it.

Suspension of disbelief is a big thing in opera.  It’s a natural given you are to suspend a lot of disbelief so the opera can move on.  So what if the woman singing the role of a Viking is Asian?  So what if two characters meet and fall in love in five seconds to set up the tragic ending?  So what if a brother and sister, from the very same parents, are black and white?  So what if Brunnhilde’s horse, Grane, NEVER makes an appearance during Gotterdammerung, even when she sings an aria to him and leads him into the funeral pyre at the end?

It doesn’t matter.  You take it on faith Grane is there even if you don’t see him.

Now I’m not saying you can get away with this sort of blatant disregard in fiction.  You can’t.  But you can get away with a hell of a lot besides.  Fantasy is chock full of stuff like this: magic, dragons, elves, demons, etc.  SF is, too: time machines, faster-than-light spacecraft, stellar empires.  All that stuff is garbage.  The physical limitations the universe imposes upon these tropes are real and immutable.  You can’t travel faster than the speed of light because it violates causality. Period.  But we happily accept FTL spacecraft and other nonsense elements like telepathy for the sake of the story.  That’s suspension of disbelief on both the part of the writer and the reader.

And that’s what fascinates me from a human perspective.  Our willingness, or innate need, to want to believe things that are manifestly and demonstrably not true intrigues me.  Okay, you can kind of understand why someone would want to do it in order to be entertained.  They are entering a contract with the writer when they pick up a story. But you can’t cross that line in such a way the story jolts them out of that prepared place they’ve put themselves in.  Opera gets away with a hell of a lot, more than written fiction can, and I’ve yet to understand why, though I suspect it is because reading is entirely mental and opera has dependent qualities of visual and aural cues married to imagination.  But both depend on the audience willing to put aside some degree of skepticism so the story can continue in a logical way. That’s the important thing to remember.

I guess what I’m trying to say is people can be manipulated a lot easier than I originally believed.  That’s a pretty strong lesson for any writer to have learned, and I’m glad I have learned it.  Though there are still boundaries you can’t cross, suspension of disbelief is not the Rubicon I once thought it was.

Audiobooks, Futurism, and the Mythical Power of Storytelling

It’s difficult bringing me into the modern age. I admit that. And those who are committed to bringing me up to speed with technology have their work cut out for them. The fools.

I have a cell phone. I rarely turn it on (as people in my personal life can attest) because when I do it often beeps at me and I get worried. I’ve seen WAY too many 1950s SF movies where shit beeps at you and then you die.  Mostly from giant vegetables or over-sized insects that view you as a passing meat snack. And who needs that?

When audio books first made an appearance I wasn’t too keen on them. I’m old-fashioned in a lot of ways. (Or just old.) I still like the feel and weight of books, the pungent smell of ink and the crisp feel of paper between my fingers when I turn the page.

I also remember when stamps were six cents and the mail was delivered twice a day.  Verily, I say unto you, I could mail a letter in-city that morning and it would be delivered the same day!  I remember Jonny Quest cartoons when they were new. I remember Johnny Carson when he was in New York and not California. I remember when milk came in bottles instead of cartons. Hell, I remember drive-in movies and ten cents would buy you a Snickers bar or a bag of Red Hots so big when you ate them all you’d puke.  And I remember Charlton Heston when he wasn’t a wanker.

Like I said.  Old.

Anyhoo. Back to audio books. So like I said I wasn’t a fan. I’d rather read a book than listen to it. But a couple of weeks ago I got this iPod thing with 120 GB of memory on it. I mean, seriously, why would I ever need that? All the music I have wouldn’t fill that F’er up. Then I had a brain wave. Why not put all my radio shows, Gunsmoke, X-1, Tarzan, Suspense and the like, on the iPod? Then I can carry ’em around with me everywhere I go. Hey, not a bad idea. And then my writing buddy talked me into downloading this free application called Stanza to actually read (read!) an electronic book on this iPod thingy-ma-jig. (I haven’t quite figured out how to do that, though.)

I was pretty adament about what audio books I was going to listen to. I’m too entrenched in my ways. I wasn’t going to listen to something new so I decided to listen to the old Ian Fleming novels. Now those of you who have read my journal know James Bond was a big influence on me when I was twelve and thirteen years old. Although, in the interest of full disclosure, what isn’t a big influence on you when you’re that age? But I’ve read these novels many, many times and I knew them quite well. I supposed it wouldn’t be too heretical for me to listen to ’em if I had the chance. Might be fun to see them through a new lens, so to speak.

And you know what? They’re not that bad. I don’t mean the novels themselves, I mean the whole audio book experience. Not surprising seeing as how I’m an Old Time Radio buff. But after thinking about this I think it goes deeper than that.

It goes to story.

You see, the first story tellers didn’t write their tales. They told them around a campfire while everyone sat huddled not for warmth but so there would be human contact as the story lifted them and brought them into a new world they hadn’t seen before.

I imagine that was some pretty scary shit when it went down the first time. It’s still kind of scary when you think about it, how we let the scales of our life fall from our bodies as we’re transported somewhere and somewhen else by a book or magazine or old time radio show.  We give up being ourselves and trust the story teller to turn us into someone else and bring us back when it’s done. That’s pretty damn powerful when you think about it.

They were the same stories we read today, though. Stories about people trying to make their way in the world. Finding love. Finding destiny. Finding home. Nothing’s changed about stories since we first started telling them to one another.  And despite all the technology and knowledge we cocoon ourselves in nothing much has changed about us, either.

Human beings LOVE stories. We like hearing a good story about other people even if the other people aren’t very nice. Writing, radio, audio books, print, CDs, DVDs, cuneiform, whatever. You pick. The method by which the stories are expressed is always changing and will always be changing.  But the stories and their intimate relation to what makes us human…that endures.

It endures because we’re human and stories, to be considered successful, must also be human. If they aren’t then they’re no longer stories.

So now I see the attraction of audio books. It’s the same reason I love OTR. It’s the spoken voice, the human connection of a story teller relating something different to me, helping me integrate a past world or a future world or a life or a philosophy that is new to me. It’s the connection of a human voice in your ear rather than the inner voice you use when you read to yourself. Both are valid. Both are important.

But I’m beginning to think one holds greater power over the other. In fact, I don’t think they’re in the same ball field at all.

One last thing. People are obviously willing to pay as much for an audio book as I would for a print novel. Wouldn’t there be a market for brand new radio shows as well? Not podcasts. I mean, not stories being read, but stories being acted out by actors with sound effects and whatnot? If audio books have shown us anything they’ve shown us that if the quality of the product is good enough (and sometimes even if it isn’t) there will be an eager market.  So why haven’t we seen this other manifestation yet?

I was wrong about audio books. But it’s not about the audio books. It’s what’s going on with the stories themselves that I failed to see. I should have known better. I profess to be a professional writer but I missed this big time.

I won’t make the same mistake again.

Metropolis (1927) as SF Atavism and Cautionary Tale – A Review

I suppose if you push me I will admit I prefer silent films to any other format. I mean, if that’s the choice you give me. ThThe grinding social furnace of Metropolis consumes humanity....ere are a lot of reasons for this. Mostly, I think, because so many silent films were incredibly groundbreaking in so many areas including writing, direction, artistic quality, and method of acting. You can watch the growth take place right before your eyes. Despite the intervening years since their creation and release, silent films continue to resonate even today.

Metropolis is one example of such a film.

I don’t know how many times I have watched this movie. Every time I see it I notice something new. I am not a huge fan of German expressionism, although I do like it. But Metropolis appears as if it combines story and art on such a high level of genius it is no surprise that it’s considered to be Fritz Lang’s magnum opus.

One of the best parts about the film is how it looks so believable. I think the closest any modern day science fiction film has come to making me truly believe in the futuristic background and culture is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. But Metropolis did it first. It may even be the best interpretation of a futuristic society bar none. I think this might be due in part to the temporal distance involved. We know the names and biographies of the actors in Metropolis, but they have no real connection to our lives in any tangible cultural sense. Whereas when I watch Blade Runner I can’t help but think “Hey, that’s Harrison Ford up there.”Maria as Babylon Whore

Of course, I know some of the names of the characters in Metropolis. But they aren’t culturally tied to me, so I think that gives them a sort of freedom and makes the film itself a tabula rasa for anyone else who comes to it for the first time. When we watch any film, no matter what it is, we always bring our past experiences with us and draw upon them to help us understand what we are seeing, and process it. This is why going to movies, and reading, and attending operas and ballets and other forms of entertainment endure. They demand that we draw upon our past experience in order to interpret them. There is not only a social connection being made but a psychological one, too. I think as human beings we like that process. We understand it, or at the very least feel comfortable with it.

We know Harrison Ford, at least through his modern day work. Most of us like him. We don’t know Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Frolich and others who appear in Metropolis. That distance lends itself to an even deeper commitment of our suspension of disbelief, I think. What I mean is, the characters themselves don’t lurch us out of the film and back into reality because they are, for the most part, completely unknown to us. We come to them somewhat empty and unformed and let them help us fill in the tapestry of tMaria as human avatarhe film-going experience.

From the decimal clocks to the mechanistic and dehumanizing social stratification, Metropolis presents myriad and multi-layered facets. As a writer this fascinates me as well. Fritz Lang is juggling a lot of crystal balls with this movie, and he keeps them in the air and moving in an intricate pattern. It’s an incredible artistic accomplishment given the breadth of the work.

The art direction for Metropolis set the bar. It is phenomenal. Even when you consider the sense-shattering impact of German expressionism, there are so many elements to Metropolis, so much packed into every scene without either the story or the look of the film becoming top heavy, that it just melds together as one entity. As for story, which as a writer I tend to concentrate on above all else, it works, too. Oh, the basic qualities of the story are a bit long in the tooth: a social and economic clash between two distinct classes, blah blah blah. But even old stories gain new life when they are peopled by actors who interpret their characters as three-dimensional beings. I find the actors did an admirable job of this in Metropolis. We’ve seen the basic story before. We have not seen this interpretation before, I don’t think. At least, not played out like this.

Of course, of all the cast, it is Maria, played by Brigitte Helm, who stands head and shoulders above everyone else. From her transformation from Christ-like figure to robot, she is right on target and completely steals the movie. Her image continues to endure right down to today.

Watching the evil Maria Robot I also get the impression a lot of background work went into developing that character. Watch how Maria moves and interacts with the other actors. Watch her facial expressions, her gestures, the small moments she brings to the screen. It is like nothing I have ever seen in any other science fiction film — ever.

Today, when we see robots on the silver screen, they either move in some mechanistic stop-and-go action, or like any other ordinary human being so they can hide among us. Think C-3PO from Star Wars to Number Six in the Battlestar Galactica remake as separate ends of the knowable spectrum. But Helm’s interpretation of Maria is the only truly inhuman robot I think I have ever seen. She moves and acts and gestures like something completely and totally alien to our experience. It is an amazing feat, and it is downright creepy.

To be sure Metropolis is not a perfect film. The philosophy “The mediation between head and hands must be the heart” becomes repetitious and I can’t help but wonder if we are not losing something in the translation from the original German which accounts for its awkwardness. There are also the usual filmatic standardizations and slogging character development that we have to suffer through upon occasion.

But for the most part this film rocks. One of the best parts is fans and collectors are always finding new snippets excised from the original film stock. So over the years they have built and patched the film into the original shape Lang meant it to be viewed in.

I like Metropolis. As someone who works in genre I can’t deny the impact the film has had upon science fiction. As someone who loves film, I can’t deny the impact it has had upon the industry as a whole. It’s just amazing to me how a film can reach higher than itself and become almost atavistic to genre. As if all that has passed since its release must by necessity narrow down to the nexus of its existence and draw creative sustenance.

I think Metropolis does that, at least on a small level, if not large. It reaches beyond itself and becomes something greater, not just in flim but as it relates to knowable human experience. In the process, we are swept along and bounced from crest to wave.

Metropolis is a fascinating ride through the fabric of imagination and culture. Anyway, that was, and continues to be, my experience when I watch this film. If you ever get to watch it, I hope you like it, too. 🙂

Here she comes....

Maria robot as atavistic symbol for progress and humanity

The Importance of History to the Western Genre

I’m still trying to sort this out. I am wondering if certain genres rely more heavily on history and historical interpretations than others. I mean, I guess that’s true to a degree for any genre, right? I’ve read lots of science fiction stories that either A.) took their ideas from history, or B.) were set in historical eras and told their stories from that viewpoint and in that context.

So history, and our view of history, and more importantly our perception of history, has always played a big role in story telling. Even when our perception is skewed and our facts are wrong they still play an important (and sometimes a debilitating) role in a story.  But I wonder if the western genre doesn’t tend to lean a little more heavily upon history as background and context, and if, ultimately, this might not be a mistake?

Now I understand when you’re writing about events that took place in the past you can’t help but have a historical framework there working for you, even if it’s window dressing. If you’re setting your story in the Old West then you are probably going to have the trappings present for the reader to recognize. This does make some sense. It gives the reader a touchstone, something familiar she can draw from. I think all good writers do this in all genres, to be honest. It isn’t specific to westerns. But one of the problems with a western is we are so inundated by its tropes, and they have become such an indelible part of our culture, that I can’t help but wonder if it has become too easy to use them as background. Until we reach the point and just throw them about like disposable stage furniture?

Like I said, I’m not sure any of this makes sense, and I’m still trying to work it all out.

You mention “Old West” and a hundred people will conjure up a hundred different images, thoughts, and ideas as to what the culture was like and the social mores people had to endure. Some of these individual ideas will be right, but almost all of them will have some mental elements that are similar. Whether it’s a feeling we have about the west, or verifiable historical knowledge, there are some tropes and images that have become so universal when you mention them, or allude to them, everyone knows what you are immediately talking about. They see it, and they feel it.

Case in point: a person on a horse. But the west was peopled by hundreds of thousands, and ultimately tens of millions of people. They didn’t all ride horses. But that image endures throughout our culture today. Just that one image. You can extrapolate what you like from that image, expand it however you wish and ultimately tell the story you want that will move people on an emotional level.

But the fact remains most people didn’t ride horses. They walked. Or they rode a horse-drawn buggy. Or,  they just walked some more. But the scene of a man or woman sitting a horse continues to hold power in our collective consciousness. And I’m not so certain that’s always a good thing because it makes it kind of easy. People, old and new, come to the genre thinking they know it pretty well. And, by certain standards, that might be a valid judgment.

I am reminded of Gene Roddenberry and the trouble he had with NBC in trying to create a believable spaceship for Star Trek. Executives kept telling him “put some rocket fins on it and let’s go, baby.”  But Roddenberry knew if you didn’t believe in the starship, the entire premise of the show would unravel.

So here’s my point. (And I confess I am probably making it rather badly.) When we write westerns, or any story, I think we should always be aware of all the other facets that come into play with a particular image we are using. Rather than go for the cliche, we should try and use the western to elevate what we think we know about ourselves today. And yesterday, too, for that matter. Again, I believe all good stories do that on some fundamental level. All good stories let the writer and the reader grow together in some sense and find common ground.

Look, I’m not arguing every short story should be some literary lodestone that elevates the consciousness of humanity. I’m just saying be aware of the world of the genre you are working in, and let your characters move and interact with that world the way they would have done in real life.They way real human beings move around and interact with the world today.

Anyway, those are the kinds of stories I like to read, and those are the kinds of stories I try to write. Sometimes I am successful and sometimes I am not. But it’s always something I try to keep in my head when I write.

Method of Story and Process for “At the Center of the World”

When I was working on my hard SF story “At the Center of the World” about Russian ballerinas, high-energy physics, and the ameliorating power of love, I did a lot of research. One of the things I researched was ballerinas, and this was a topic I had wanted to write about ever since I took a college course in introductory art appreciation and learned about Degas.

I am fascinated by the form Degas uses in his paintings about les petite rats. It put a hook in my brain that over the long years developed into a form I wanted to portray in the story. I was also interested in examining the extreme form of power and control these women (and men) show on the stage. Ballet is full of power, form and poetry. I wanted to the story to reflect that. I knew if the ballet scene didn’t come off right the entire story would fall apart.

It’s like that with fiction a lot of times. Take away one piece, have one foundation stone weakened, and the entire edifice will topple into nothingness. This is not anything new with many stories. A couple of examples will suffice. Take Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We’ve seen the movies and all the interpretations. But you know why the original movie and the sequel The Bride of Frankenstein work so well? It’s because of the creation scenes. If we don’t believe in the creation scene, if that doesn’t capture our imagination, then the rest of the movie falls apart rather quickly. We see this sometimes in film and story. Sometimes there is a crucial scene or moment that, if not handled correctly, would ruin the whole.

Now I’m not saying I’m in a class with Shelley or anything of the sort. But I am a professional writer and I have been doing this for quite a while. You come to understand some fundamental truths in that crucible. And one of those truths is that sometimes a story will hinge upon one scene more than any other. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t…well, the editor probably wouldn’t buy it anyway.

Not every story has this. A story is written and constructed as the story demands, not as the writer wishes. If it calls for such a thing then the writer would be well to include it. I guess maybe it’s kind of hard to explain to someone who doesn’t write, but I can bet you most writers out there would know what I am talking about, at least in this regard.

As I researched the story I kept the images in my head of these poetic and graceful forms moving across a stage and moving through life. Ultimately, in the story, they move through the human heart and the universe until the very concept of man himself becomes changed.

I had a lot of fun writing “At the Center of the World” and it is one of my favorite stories. I like all my stories. But I would be lying if I said this one wasn’t particularly close to my heart. I hope you guys liked it, too. 🙂

The Ballet Giselle — Inspiration for “At the Center of the World”

It was this clip from the ballet Giselle (ostensibly about a dead woman dancing with her lover) that was the inspiration for my hard science fiction story “At the Center of the World” which was published by New Myths Magazine in their #16 issue. As you might expect, one of the main characters in my story is also named Giselle.

The end of the clip where she walks across the stage after him en pointe is haunting to me. I wanted to capture that same haunting grace and delicate power in the story, and a few readers have intimated they think I did.

I did a lot of research for that story and found the entire ballet world fascinating. All I knew about it before then was The Nutcracker and the paintings of Degas and his petite rats.  As I did more research I became deeply interested in the physical requirements and mental preparation that goes into these performances. As a writer interested in the human condition, I found that world fascinating. Suddenly there was huge story potential. Just researching the structural engineering and integrity of the shoes themselves was eye-opening on so many levels.

Here’s the clip from YouTube that inspired the story:

Science Fiction Used To Be Fun. It Can Be Again.

Now that I’ve moved from LJ to WordPress I will, from time to time, reprint old essays of mine that appeared earlier so new readers can sample them. This was posted in my old LJ on July 28, 2010. I think it’s still relevant today. Then again, as far as I am concerned, anything that pisses off the literary dinosaurs is relevant.

My friend [info]bondo_ba (and if you’re not reading his blog you should be) has a post about SF in the noughties and commented on the pretentiousness of SF, specifically the kinds of stories Dozois tends to select for his “Best of” anthology. I tend to agree with most of what [info]bondo_ba said even though I am an unabashed fan of New Wave SF.  Anyway, I posted a reply at the blog, but wanted to reprint it here because A.) I believe SF is in trouble, (I know, you’ve heard that one before) and B.) Something needs to be done about it, and C.) Maybe we’re here because SF is too successful?

Anyway, here is what [info]bondo_ba said:

“He (Dozois) has a tendency towards selecting overly pretentious work, and has been one of the driving forces behind the fact that SF literature is growing ever more literary – and ever more distant from the fans.”

My reply:

“Bingo. SF writers keep wondering why SF is “graying” and not finding new fans. This is the reason. When you write down to a person they might get the idea you think they are a POS. So it’s natural they will turn away from the genre altogether.

“The New Wave was necessary, imo, in that it brought SF out of its cartoonish “rockets and bug-eyed monsters” phase that dominated in the 30s, 40s and 50s. It also demanded a much higher literary quality. Unfortunately, with that higher expectation came too much hubris and pretentiousness on the part of some writers — which in effect, and over time, drove away fans who remembered SF for what it used to be: Fun.

“The SF writers themselves also forgot what SF was supposed to be about, and only concentrated on the literary aspects of the story. The results of which you have pointed out here.

“It’s a real shame. I believe SF can continue to grow, but it’s got to get over this “We have to make the literati like us so our work will be validated” phase. The literati and those who toil in the Ivory Towers will NEVER like or appreciate SF in any form it takes. That’s not how they roll. And the sooner SF writers understand that then they can get back to writing stories that will bring in fans, rather than push them away.”

Now that I’ve had time to think about this some more ([info]mmerriam hinted on Facebook he might have something to say about this topic as well, and I await his comments with eagerness, and, yeah, he’s another writer whose blog you should be reading) I am wondering if SF hasn’t become a victim of its own success? I mean, let’s face it, we won the genre wars. We won. SF is prevalent in everything from commercials to movies to books to, well, you just about name it and our influence is there.

We won.  No other genre can claim as big a turf in the public consciousness as we do.  Plus, SF was never about prognostication, it was all about getting the public ready for the future.

And we have arrived. We’re there. The trip is over. The future is here, folks. So maybe all that’s left is the genre’s own momentum? Dunno. I hope not. I hope there are new literary frontiers waiting to be opened. SF sets itself up perfectly to do that, but we haven’t seen much evidence of that work going on lately. There has been window dressing. Steampunk leaps to mind.  But I maintain that’s not a movement but a literary ornament. Don’t get me wrong. I actually like Steampunk (up to a point) but it hasn’t shifted the terrain the way New Wave and Cyberpunk have.

Meh. I’m probably way off base about all of this. It wouldn’t be the first time. But I am damn certain of one thing. You cannot walk down the SF aisle of a bookstore nowadays without experiencing an overwhelming sense of WTF?

Science fiction used to be fun. It did. I know this is true because I remember it.* It’s not fun anymore and maybe that’s because, like I said, we are victims of our own successes.

But we don’t have to give up. We can still be successful. And you can do that by bringing in new readers (along with readers who dropped out a long time ago) by making SF fun again.

Fun. Not opaque and stultifying in some vain attempt to impress people who will never be impressed with us under any circumstances you can name.**

*Please, don’t give me the “Science fiction is twelve” argument. I’ve been reading and writing this crap long enough to know good SF when I see it whether I was twelve, or fifty.

**Remember, these are the same people who think Brave New World is the speculative fiction giant of the literary world. And they only do that because they refuse to believe BNW is science fiction. That’s how out of touch they are.

Destination Future Interview: “Rubber Monkeys”

Mary-Grace Ellington interviewed me about my story “Rubber Monkeys” in the anthology Destination: Future published by Hadley Rille Press. Here’s the link and I hope you give it a peek. I had a lot of fun doing it, and it gave me an opportunity to think about the story in a deeper way, which is always a good exercise. 🙂

Destination: Future Interview

“At the Center of the World” Published at New Myths Magazine!

My new hard science fiction story about Russian ballerinas, high-energy physics, and universal love has been published by New Myths Magazine!

I’ve always liked this story. I like all my stories but I’ve felt especially close to this one for a variety of reasons. I hope you like it, too. Just click the link, then go to their “Issue #16” link and find my story. Sorry for all the clicking, but that’s the way they have the magazine laid out.

Thanks, guys, and I hope you enjoy the story!

“At the Center of the World”

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