The Big Short – Larry Correia’s Target Rich Environment

It’s always hard to talk about short story collections. Even when they’re written by a single author there’s rarely any kind of narrative through line, they frequently lack a shared cast and tend to vary wildly in tone. In my experience the best way to tackle them is to discuss the author so before we get to Target Rich Environment we need to talk about Larry Correia first.

Correia is a somewhat popular fantasy and science fiction writer known for long, pulpy novels with an emphasis on crazy action and bizarre creatures. While many of his characters are characters they aren’t the deepest examples of character writing in the world. These stories are written for the penny dreadful enthusiast and feature exotic locations, pretty women and hard fighting. There’s lots of good, honest fun to be had but not much in the way of the deeply psychological or introspective. That alone should be enough for you to decide whether you want to read it or not, but if you really need convincing I’ll say a few words about the stories themselves.

Monster Hunter International is Correia’s biggest franchise and features a solid ten books, six by Correia alone and four with cowriters. There are two shorts in the collection featuring MHI, one that stretches back to a time before most of the existing stories, the other focusing on a side character from the main novels as he struggles with the personnel issues that come from working in professional monster extermination. Both stories feature the kind of B movie, fast moving zaniness that defines the MHI franchise and are fun, but not particularly remarkable. MHI has worked best when Correia lets his imagination run free and follows wherever it goes, something a short story doesn’t always allow. While neither story feels incomplete they don’t really measure up to other MHI stories.

The Grimnoir Chronicles are a different take on pulp, focusing less on action and adventure and more on the moody feel of a film like The Maltese Falcon. While MHI ostensibly takes place in the world we know, Grimnoir is in a neon soaked 1920s where magic is spreading through the general populace and changing the face of warfare and espionage. Both the Grimnoir shorts in the collection focus on the franchise’s protagonist, Jake Sullivan, and tell a little about his life before and after the Grimnoir trilogy. The second also hints that Sullivan’s story stretches out beyond the three books and two shorts he’s appeared in. They’re great stories for fans of the franchise, but only the first will really jell with people who haven’t read Jake’s other adventures.

There are a number of shorts set in other people’s worlds, using original characters. These are pretty much what I’d expect – again, adventure stories with fun action and fun characters that don’t work the brain too hard. But it’s in the collection’s original stories that we find the hidden gem. “The Adventures of Tom Strange, Interdimensional Insurance Salesman” is Correia at his best. While the premise is a bit sillier than he usually goes for, Correia wisely chose to steer into the absurdities of interdimensional insurance, piling one misadventure on top of another in an ever evolving pile of goofiness until you don’t really care if Tom’s weapon of choice is the Combat Wombat, or that Correia himself (from a parallel dimension, of course) sits atop one of the most powerful organizations in the cosmos or even that Tom’s intern is a hapless, Starbucks chugging wimp. All you really care about is seeing where the story goes and how much it will make you chuckle. The original audiobook version was read by Adam Baldwin, which I’m sure added to its appeal.

On the whole, Target Rich Environment is a great investment for the short story lover or the adventure story lover. It’s not the greatest pick for the person who overthinks his reading material. But if you have  a long international flight coming up you could do worse than taking this book along with you.

The Sibyl’s War – Good Ideas Alone Are Not Everything

One of my favorite science fiction authors is Timothy Zahn. I’ve raved about his many accomplishments in the past but today I’m going to take look at his shortcomings through the lens of his latest original series, the Chronicle of the Sibyl’s War. At a glance, this should be another dose of great Zahn storytelling, beginning with an interesting premise and setting up interesting conflict. However, as big a fan as I am, I have to confess that I haven’t been as interested in it as I could be. Since what makes good writing is very important to me, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to work out why that might be and I’ve arrived at some conclusions.

First, let me set the stage. Nicole Hammond is a low rent gang kid from Philadelphia who is abducted by aliens and dragged away to the alien ship Fyrantha to serve as a Sibyl, a human with the ability to telepathically hear the ship giving repair orders when she takes a specific drug. Unfortunately, on top of the whole abducted by aliens thing, taking that drug slowly poisons her and ensures she’ll die in a year or so. To top it off, one of her old gang members was abducted with her and is intent on raising a ruckus through the decks of the ship, getting her and her work crew into trouble. Nothing’s easy for Nicole but when she discovers there are prisoners on board being forced to fight in death matches for reasons unknown even Nicole’s jaded heart is forced to take an interest. Soon she’s doing her best to make peace, both in the death match arenas and the ship at large.

Now, this premise is fine and dandy. It has a protagonist, plenty of hurdles for said protagonist, lots of people for her to cross paths with along the way and so on. The ideas are solid. The problems come in execution. Zahn is not the best character writer in scifi. Now, as a genre more invested in ideas that’s not a major hurdle to overcome and Zahn has always brought strong plots, world building, mysteries and puzzles to the table. On the surface, the Sibyl’s War should be able to stand on its ideas.

Down on her luck girl gets a chance to save city sized starship from the hands of slavers? Great! Ancient battleship of incredible power teetering between the hands of villains and the common folk? Great! Kidnapped gladiators fighting for their freedom? Academy award winning premise! The problem is what happened when all those ideas got jumbled up together.

You see, Zahn’s character writing really shines when we spend a lot of time with a small group of people against the backdrop of a large, colorful cast who come and go but – and this is important – who are with the cast for most of any story they appear in. In short, Zahn can write very good characters, but he needs to spend a lot of time with them to do it. He does not have the gift or technique to sketch compelling characters quickly. But with all the ideas fighting for time in the Sibyl’s War series, characters appear and vanish quickly, sometimes appearing for only a couple of chapters a book, and even those that do receive development get it at a pace too slow to really feel like they’re paying off. This even goes for Nicole, one character who should absolutely not feel like she’s static, especially in the first book of the series (she gets more growth in the second).

Again, this isn’t a flaw in the premise of the series or in Zahn’s abilities as a writer. It simply feels like he has mismatched his talents with the demands of his story. Perhaps Zahn wanted to challenge himself as a writer. Perhaps he’s never attempted this kind of character writing and didn’t realize he would be so lackluster at it. Perhaps he just wanted to tell this story regardless of how well he did at it. Whatever led to it, the Sibyl’s War just doesn’t stack up very well against most of the rest of his work. Everyone has a bad project or two, and it’s better to over reach your grasp than never take risks. Still, a part of me will always wonder if the story would have been more satisfying if the ideas were pruned down, or tackled by a different writer.

World Building – Ignorant vs. Incorrect

Recently I was giving feedback to another author on a book and I wound up talking about a concept that I’ve found myself drawing heavily from in my own writing career but I find used very little in most fantasy and scifi fiction I read, namely being incorrect. I presume this to be an outgrowth of wiki culture, where we can get huge amounts of information on any subject with a quick Internet search. Rarely questioned is whether that information is correct, which ironically is what underpins one of my favorite kinds of world building. Consider.

You have two characters come from different (probably but not necessarily fictional) cultures living right next to each other. The reader needs exposition on how these cultures function to understand the story going forward. So you have each character ignorant of the other culture. By asking each other questions they can give each other the necessary exposition and help the reader understand what is going on. This kind of thing is surprisingly common, especially in urban fantasy stories, but the degrees to which it comes off as believable… varies. Ignorance is a fine way to justify exposition as a way to push exposition. But it’s not the only one and it’s not the most interesting or informative way to do it. Sometimes its better to have characters be incorrect in what they “know” about others.

Wikipedia isn’t always right, after all.

Take for example Raiders from the Rings, an old and not exactly outstanding scifi novel that introduced this idea to me when I was very young. We join a Spacer who is part of a great raiding party landing on Earth. He fulfills his goal, to kidnap a woman and abscond into space with her, but finds he’s also accidentally gotten a stow away, her brother who tried to rescue her and got taken along for the ride. The three reach a truce after some shenanigans and spend some time getting to know each other.

The Spacer is surprised to learn from the Earthmen that they expect to be used in evil Spacer genetic experiments that will produce more mutants for the Spacer hordes waiting to reconquer Earth. He laughs and tells them there is a mutant horde, of course – cosmic radiation will do that to a people. All Spacers are mutants, the radiation has damaged the X chromosomes of the men so that they function as Y chromosomes in the reproductive process, ensuring that all Spacer children are male and forcing them to constantly kidnap women from Earth to sustain their population. But they’re not monsters, just normal people. This reinforces his opinion that Earthmen are too stupid to survive in space, they just won’t be able to handle it. That impression is demolished the next day when he gets home to Mars and finds every building there destroyed by a vengeful fleet from Earth, launched at the exact moment the Spacer raiding fleet passed the point in Earth’s gravity well that made it impossible to turn back.

This sequence in the book establishes a lot of things about the world – why our hero was abducting girls at the beginning, what the big hurdle he has to overcome is and – most importantly – what the status quo of the two factions is. It also tells think of each other and in doing that also tells us something important about the weaknesses of each culture. Earth culture is founded on fear – they’ve spent centuries watching the skies wondering when the next raid will come and now they’re fighting back, not in a controlled, planned way like a military would but with the panicked flailing of a terrified child. Spacer culture is suffused with arrogance – they’ve always held technical and tactical advantages over Earth so large they can no longer conceive of effective resistance. 

And the best part about this exposition is that the second half of it is shown, rather than told. We see it in the way they think of each other, what actions those thoughts provoke and the way those assumptions are proven false.

There’s room for, “What is this thing about your culture?” questions in a story, of course, but it’s passive world building. You’re handing your audience facts about the world. Ignorance creates more active world building, where characters actively grapple with cultures and facts as they confront them and the characters find their faulty understandings of the world disproven. This allows for not only exposition but character exploration and growth. Not every bit of exposition calls for this level of depth but there are definitely times when it gives a more thorough and rich understanding of the world, as in Raiders from the Rings.

Another perk of handling exposition this way is that it leaves some uncertainty in the reader’s mind. After all, if one character was wrong about the truth of a situation how do we know the next person to exposit on the subject isn’t just as wrong? Of course you don’t want to keep yanking your readers around that much but if you can create that sliver of uncertainty you’re much more likely to hold your audience’s attention than you are without it. Certainty kills tension, which is at the heart of good narratives. Too many world builders are intent on telling their readers the way the world is. However good exposition is like exploring – much of the fun is in the gradual discovery of things and seeing how pieces fit together as the story progresses. Characters with incorrect understandings of the world add a spice to that which keeps your exposition interesting. Exposition tends to be bland to begin with, don’t take out any more of the flavor than you have to.

In all there’s no one size fits all approach to world building, but that’s what makes the steady increase of straightforward ignorance as the key to exposition such a negative part of modern storytelling. Whenever possible, check to see of changing things up might add a needed dimension to your exposition. Start by letting your characters be misinformed, rather than just uniformed.

Into the Spiderverse – Focus Please

Sometimes a movie comes along that is such an achievement in one area that it overwhelms any and all shortcomings it might have in other areas. Such a film is Into the Spiderverse.

Let me come out and say it right away, the animation of this movie is so far beyond anything else an American digital studio has achieved that it needs to be taught in animation schools. Practically every frame of it is perfect and it’s many stylistic choices, such as visualizing sound effects and internal monologues as a comic book might, enhance its charm rather than distracting from it. If visual appeal were all that counted this would truly be the greatest Spiderman tale ever to grace the silver screen. Alas, while film is a visual medium it is still a storytelling medium and by that measure Into the Spiderverse doesn’t quite stack up.

The fact is, the movie has too many plot threads and doesn’t quite weave them together into a web the way it would like. Spiderverse looks like a simple passing the torch movie at first glance. Peter Parker is Spiderman but he gets killed in a battle with the Kingpin. He passes the necessary information to defeat the Kingpin to a graffiti artist by the name of Miles Morales, who just so happens to have been bitten by a radioactive spider – just like Peter – and tasks Miles with stopping the Kingpin before things get worse. The problem is Miles has no idea how to do that or what kinds of things will be getting worse.

Things get weirder when Miles meets a much older version of Peter Parker with a slightly different hair color who has retired from Spiderman life and turns out to be from an alternate dimension. Miles enlists alternate Peter for help, although after hearing his backstory he’s not entirely sure this is the best source of advice he could find. Still beggars can’t be choosers and the two set off to foil the Kingpin. It turns out the villain is building an interdimensional bridge and the two have to close it. To do that they wind up enlisting the help of Spider Gwen, Spider Noir, Spider Ham and Cyber Spider, four other alternate dimension people who also got bitten by radioactive spiders and have their own backstories.

Oh, and Miles’ uncle? Who taught him how to paint and is also secretly a supervillain and thus on the outs with his brother, Miles’ dad who is a cop? Turns out he’s working for the Kingpin and that makes things even more complicated. Miles also needs to understand his powers and adjust to a new school and generally try and fit in to teen life.

Follow all that?

No, you probably didn’t. The movie doesn’t help matters either, moving at a breakneck pace and rarely stopping to explore anything with any depth. To be fair to the film, the classic Spiderman themes of power, responsibility and family, embodied in Miles, and his father and uncle, get a good amount of time and development. These parts of the story are deep and leave an emotional impression. But the rest of it gets less development and often comes off as rushed or flat. In particular, the alternate Peter is rushed and the other Spiders are flat, one note characters. And as a group the Spiders are kind of muddled, sharing one basic backstory and very similar powersets. The film comes off as very, very unfocused.

And it’s the worst kind of unfocused. There’s nothing wrong with any of the ideas Spiderverse offers. It just can’t stop and develop many of them enough for them to feel important. And those ideas it does develop are strong enough to tell me that if it had focused on two or three of its ideas it would have been great instead of just good. Honestly, I’d have rather had a movie with Miles, the Alternate Spiderman and the Kingpin with just Miles’ uncle as an employee rather than the much more overstuffed film that’s on offer. Into the Spiderverse wants too much of a good thing and, much like the DCEU that tried to cram years of franchise building into a few films, it winds up a worse product than it could have been as a result.

Still, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it and enjoy it. It’s good execution on great themes and it is a joy to behold. It’s just not everything it could have been – or the greatest film outing for Spiderman.

Things Fall Apart – Strangely

It is almost universally acknowledged that Stranger Things Season 3 is better than Season 2, and marks a return to form.

Yes, I am here to contradict that narrative.

As a story Stranger Things 3 is pretty enjoyable. It has great character moments, a lot of fun nostalgia and some killer special effects. But – and this is a big caveat – as a sequel to the previous seasons it falls very short. Yes, even as a sequel to Season 2. I’m going to assume you’ve watched the franchise and just hit the points that don’t add up to me or we’ll be here all day. Maybe someday someone will write a book breaking down the franchise, along with its plots, characters and themes. Today isn’t that day (although I may be that person). For now, let’s look at the massive holes ST3 has left in the fabric of the narrative and ask ourselves… can we really call this an improvement?

Start with the most important plot element in Season 3 – Starcourt Mall. This mall is built, is open for business and is reshaping the local economy within a year of the events of Season 2. How?

Furthermore, Russians (!) have tunneled out miles – yes miles – of underground pathways, along with a control bunker, storage rooms and living spaces for who knows how many of their personnel, and done something with all of that dirt, and they’ve done it without anyone in Hawkins noticing. The huge influx of staff is mysterious as well – I’d estimate the Russians have at least thirty, maybe as many as fifty people down in that complex. How were they smuggled into the country? Sure, they could have gotten to Hawkins as part of a work crew building the mall they’re hiding under but… seriously, it wasn’t that easy to get a Russian national into the country undetected during the Cold War.

And speaking of Russian nationals, what is with the Russian knockoff of the Terminator? I understand the joke – he’s not-Ahnold – but we watch him get hit, kicked and shot without showing any sign of pain or weakness. How is that possible?

Look, I get it. Stranger Things is a franchise about monsters from a parallel dimension. Why should I care?

I care because the entire cool factor of the franchise came from the fact that those monsters were invading a world exactly like ours. Arguably down to the U.S. government researching and producing people with psychic powers.

In ST1 and ST2 the world was painstakingly realistic, barring a few anachronisms that might annoy some 80s purists (I was very young then so I haven’t noticed any of these myself.) This enhanced the fantasy of watching people who were very much like us, as kids then and adults now, take on a creature beyond our wildest imaginations. (Well, maybe not if you’re H.R. Geiger). But adding all these questions about the Russians superhuman building, smuggling and bullet taking capacities ruins this illusion. Hawkins no longer exists in a world like ours except with monsters from the Upside Down, now it exists in a world with cartoony evil lairs under small Midwestern towns and humans who are almost as monstrous as the Demigorgon from Season 1.

It ruins so much of the show’s charm.

Worse, the franchise’s coolest concept in name, visual presentation and general execution was always the Upside Down and it’s entirely gone from this season. No one goes there save a few clairvoyance sequences with Eleven, we don’t learn any more about it and we don’t get new monsters. The Mind Flayer shows some new powers but remains basically the same as it was last season. We’re no closer to understanding why everyone is so obsessed with the Upside Down. We don’t even get any new people with psychic powers. I wasn’t a fan of Eleven’s side trip in Season 2 but at least it opened a door to new characters and powers. Too bad they’re not going to do anything with it.

The Upside Down and El’s psychic abilities is an incredibly intriguing mystery and it would have been nice to keep developing it but instead it felt like that entire part of the plot was in stasis for six hours while the cast obsessed about Russians. The Cold War is over, there’s not tension there, please put that story line to rest. The only interesting part about it was Alexei, the defector, and he’s dead.

There were other problems. The series on the whole felt less dark and oppressive, in spite of being more gory over all. We’ve already seen the Mind Flayer and, while it’s flesh shaping ways are new, in total the bodysnatcher routine was easy to spot. The people who were taken over by the Mind Flayer (other than Billy) turned into such laughable caricatures of their previous selves that I couldn’t take them seriously. And I struggled to take many of them seriously beforehand. It was very hard for the Flayer to present itself as a threat. The only time I felt legitimate tension in the story and feared for the cast was during the Sauna test. That’s about 10 minutes out of the total run time. Not really living up to the feel of the first two seasons.

Many of the characters – Hopper, Judy, Joyce and Mike are the biggest offenders – came off as more obnoxiously high strung than they have in the past. I was having a hard time mustering sympathy for their situations. And the “death” of Jim Hopper feels like a very transparent play on our emotions. I wasn’t born yesterday – I know he’s coming back next season and so do you. This was clearly just a way to encourage the cast to wander off to the four winds and make it easier to introduce new elements and drag the Russians back in next season. Because more Russians is exactly what I want from Stranger Things 4.

No, Stranger Things 3 is not a great return to the ways of the first season. It’s a decent shot at a different kind of a story in the franchise. But it’s undercut a lot of what made the show enjoyable at first and I’m not sure it brought enough to the table to counterbalance that. Will Seaons 4 fix that? Only time will tell.

Disney’s Mulan was Respectful to Chinese Culture

The Mouse is drunk on live action remakes. I don’t know why people keep going to watch them myself but it is what it is. If glitzy wannabe Broadway is your preference to the excellent hand drawn animation of the Disney golden age then by all means check it out, I’ll be happy to stay home. But I was pretty upset to hear my third favorite Disney film was undergoing major story changes to become more “respectful” to its native culture. As you’ve already guessed from the title, I’m talking about the upcoming remake of Mulan.

Now, all we’ve got to go on so far is a trailer and that’s not much. Especially if you compare the original trailer for Mulan to the end product. So 2020’s Mulan is by no means a ship that’s sailed. But I’m still pretty upset to hear about some of the changes, like cutting Mushu. He was a fun, memorable and quotable character. He gave a bit of recognizable American flavor to a film lacking many cultural touchstones for its primary audience, much like Timon in The Lion King.

But the charge in general really grated at me.

At its heart Mulan is a story about the foundational Confucian values, filial piety, humaneness and ritual. The first is at the heart of the story, because it is Mulan’s unshakable loyalty to her family that drives her to the heights of her achievements. Her father will go and fight – and given his age and injuries, certainly die. So Mulan takes his place. Everything that happens after hinges on her familial devotion.

Humaneness is demonstrated in a particularly Disney fashion, by having Mulan anthropomorphize and sympathize with her animal friends. This is a common Disney trope but it is always used to show a kindness and gentleness in leading ladies and it happens to synchronize perfectly with this Confucian value. Of course, humaneness also applies to how we deal with other people and in this Mulan is also exemplary, showing an insight and compassion for her fellow soldiers that could probably only be matched by the Emperor himself.

Finally, ritual is something Mulan engages in many times, from painting her face and going to the Matchmaker, to the relentless drilling of her military training. You can’t really get away from ritual in Chinese society so perhaps the film has too little of it but that’s hardly disrespectful it’s just one of the realities of storytelling.

Significantly, while Mulan embodies each of the Confucian values it’s also important to note that they are mirrored back to her as well. Her father won’t reveal her and bring her home because it will put her in more danger than letting her go. His loyalty to family surpasses his duty to Empire. Humaneness is also echoed by Mulan’s father and mother at first, by (oddly enough) Shan Yu when he tries to send her home and spare her death in war (this isn’t how conscripts worked back then), and finally by the Emperor of all China. And many of the rituals Mulan takes part in aren’t things you can do alone, she has to do them with others. So it’s not like these things are confined to her – they’re part of the warp and weft of the story.

But that story is a universal one. That’s part of what makes films like Aladdin and Mulan so brilliant. They’re totally understandable and relatable stories steeped in unfamiliar cultures. Mulan is a misfit who tries to do something big for someone she loves. She starts out with the odds stacked against her but a good training montage brings her in to step with the comrades who didn’t trust her and teaches her the ropes. She immediately goes out and realizes how far she’s still short of the mark and has to make it up on the spot. The final setback leaves her alone – now she has to be the hero when it’s hard. And she gets justice – she’s exposed as a liar. But she’s also seen for the fullness of her dedication and talent.

It’s hard to judge based on one trailer, as I said, but what I do see worries me. The original Mulan was as solid as it gets. This new version shows… troubling changes (beyond no Mushu). Mulan appears to already be proficient in martial arts, she seems to have something to prove in the army, she seems to chafe at the bonds of her family. The filial piety and humaneness of the original are nowhere in evidence. Ritual seems more a restraint than the lubrication of social life it should be. It’s only 90 seconds of a feature length movie. Not all of it may make the final cut.

But I’m deeply concerned that, much like the unfortunate Alita film from this year, the very real cultural respect the original Mulan film had at its heart has been pushed aside for the sake of modern, trendy shibboleths. And that would be truly ironic, since there’s nothing more disrespectful than stealing a few names and some clothing from one culture, draping them over your own ideas then selling it as authentic. The jury’s still out on this one… but I’m not optimistic.

UPDATE – Inbetween writing and publishing this (and boy am I have this problem a lot lately) new drama erupted around Liu Yifei, the actress playing Mulan in the upcoming live action version. These aspects don’t have any direct bearing on my points here about either version of the story. While I feel her remarks on Hong Kong were foolish and stupid that’s no reason to boycott the Mulan remake. Just don’t go see it because it looks lame. That’s the end of my remarks on that.

Hiatus

When I first concepted Pay the Piper late last year I had no idea how future events would play out (as is true of most of us). It seemed like a fairly harmless lark poking fun at Silicon Valley and reminding our Tech Overlords that they, too, are mortal. The irony of my writing it on The Internet (TM) was not lost on me, and I felt would show that my tongue is firmly in cheek. However, over the last six months I’ve watched a lot of public life erode. We actually seem to be slipping into dedicated opposing camps as time goes on and I’ve come to question whether the story I’m writing is truly helpful – to myself if nothing else – and whether I like where I had planned to go. For now, Pay the Piper is on hiatus as I evaluate what I should do with it. In the meantime, look forward to a return of essays, starting next week, for the near future.

 

– Nate