Weekly writing vlog brings a quick update on various topics but mostly the state of short stories.
Tag Archives: On Writing
When Spoof isn’t Enough
From the title page Out of the Soylent Planet is utterly unrepentant about what it is. Robert Kroese has written a pretty fast moving and incredibly silly book about an intergalactic conman named Rex Nihilo and his long-suffering robot sidekick Sasha. It has lasguns. It has spaceships. It has lots and lots and lots of robots who are all forbidden from having any kind of original thoughts (Sasha included.) What it didn’t manage that well was laughs, at least not in my book.
Right off the bat I should note that humor is an extremely subjective topic and the fact that I didn’t find Kroese’s work funny doesn’t mean you’ll be equally unimpressed. I’ve heard several people say they thought it was hilarious. From a totally dispassionate point of view Kroese builds a number of jokes in very workmanlike fashion and executes on them well. That’s fine, but workmanlike humor kind of misses the point, at least in my opinion. Again, humor is hard to quantify.
All that said, I don’t intend to critique the humor in this review. I recommend reading a sample of one of the Rex Nihilo books and seeing if you laugh at it, since Kroese’s humor doesn’t change much in nature or tone over the course of the book. What you see is what you will get. You’ll probably get a better grasp of how much you’ll like his sense of humor firsthand rather than trying to see it through the lens of this review.
Instead, I’m going to recommend you avoid this book because the story and characters are very lackluster. I’m not a fan of negative reviews overall, mainly because poor quality media tends to fall into the same pitfalls over and over again. However, while I didn’t like Kroese’s humor and I thought his story had a lot of flaws, I can say it was original! In a way. Which is to say, I found its failures unique and refreshing in their own way.
As I said at the beginning, from the title onward Soylent Planet wears its idea on its sleeve. It is all about making fun of well known scifi ideas and properties. It begins with a chapter long sendup of Star Wars. The issue I have with it is that the Star Wars parody plays out along side the introduction of our characters rather than serving as the introduction to our characters. Rex and Sasha play no direct part in that parody they just watch it play out. It’s parody for the sake of parody, rather than a parody that also tells a story of its own. It’s more a distraction from the story than an enhancement for it and it had the side effect of making our protagonists less than the most interesting thing in the room.
If nothing else, this isn’t a running issue in the story. After this strange introductory chapter Rex and Sasha step up into center stage and their decisions do drive the story and are the major focus of the narrative, rather than being a sort of side show to a parody Kroese is running in parallel. However once Rex and Sasha are in the limelight we run into another problem. Rex is a character that borders on total incompetence who manages to stumble through things on luck. Again, this can work in a humorous story. The Pink Panther films comes to mind. The effectiveness of that is down to the quality of the humor in the story, which again is going to vary from reader to reader. I’ve already said all I have to say about that.
Sasha, on the other hand, is a robot who is forbidden to have original thoughts of her own. If she approaches such a thought, a safety mechanism reboots her. That’s an interesting idea, reminiscent of the narcoleptic character in the movie Rat Race, and seems like it should be the center of numerous gags. It’s not. Instead, it’s a plot device that allows Rex to escape the final danger he faces which is fine, in and of itself. I’m not saying that Kroese should have cut this plot device from the climax of the story, I think the two things could easily coexist. I just felt like neither character really had a central element that really held the story together.
Instead, Rex seems to bounce around from one scenario to another, spoofing on famous scifi ideas, and Sasha is dragged along in his wake. Both characters feel dragged by the plot, reacting rather than acting. Now, character agency is a tricky thing and I do think that passive or reactive characters are just as good as active ones, contrary to popular belief. But I like my reactive characters to have strong, well define core motivations that define their reactions. While Sasha is programmed to serve, that’s as close as either character gets to such a central motivation. I would’ve liked to see a stronger core to both characters to balance their passivity in this book.
What I can praise Kroese for is a good setup and payoff for the plot. He does a reasonable job of putting all the pieces in place for his climax before he gets there and he clearly enjoyed writing it. While many of the transitions in the story are clunky, the core idea is pretty polished. I want to enjoy this book. It’s just crammed full of things that make it hard for me. I wanted this story to have a point, to do something of its own with its characters and world. Kroese built it to spoof on scifi ideas and tropes instead. He executed on that idea pretty well in Soylent Planet. Whether you’ll enjoy that or not is a matter of taste.
Writing Vlog – 03-01-2023
An update on short stories and first thoughts on A Candle in the Wind.
I’ve written about my problems with the storytelling of Rian Johnson in the past. However after observing his career for some time, I’m beginning to believe that there’s a deeper thread running through his work that bears addressing. In the past, Johnson has stated he’d rather have half his audience love a film and half hate it than have a large majority simply like it. In fairness, he has succeeded in becoming quite the controversial director.
This position is merited. But I think the reason underlying that merited controversy is Johnson’s simple, undiluted laziness. On his own, I don’t think Johnson being a lazy director who somehow finds an audience is bad. Art and effort don’t have an entirely linear relationship and, once a certain degree of competence is achieved, even lazy creators can still create work of surprising artistic merit. This is true in every area of life and I don’t think art is an exception.
If Johnson was the only lazy director out there it might not be that big of an issue for movies as a whole although it would be disappointing. However we’re starting to see it with other creators as well. James Gunn and Taiko Waititi are also directors with a great deal of talent, in particular with a gift for striking visuals and excellent editing. As writers they have very little ambition.
Let me make my case using some examples from Johnson’s writing – and be warned there will be spoilers in here. In the movie Knives Out, Johnson builds his entire plot around a character, Marta Cabrera, who’s most notable characteristic is an is her inability to lie. Any time she lies she winds up vomiting. Marta is the caretaker for the aged Harlan Thrombey who winds up dying (indirectly) of an inappropriately administered medication. As his caretaker, Marta is implicated.
By the end of the story the genius detective Blanc has deduced the real killer and corners him into confessing using a gambit that hinges on… Marta lying. This is revealed when Marta barfs all over the killer after he confesses. All this happens in direct contradiction to all the previous instances where we see Marta vomit when she even tries to lie.
Now, I wouldn’t object to this as much if we’d seen Marta practice to overcome her difficulty. However there’s no set up like this at all, in fact it raises the possibility that Marta can lie and everything we’ve heard from her is actually a lie. We were supposed to be able to be confident in Marta’s integrity and the climax completely undercuts it to the point where I’m not sure her entire untruth allergy is a ploy on her part. It destroys Johnson’s narrative.
This happens again in Glass Onion, Johnson’s latest mystery film. A major central character, Andi, is revealed to be dead and the character who’s been called Andi up until the middle of the story turns out to be her twin sister Helen. This doesn’t add new dimension to any of the characters. It doesn’t cast any of their conversations in new lights, it doesn’t create tension since we don’t know Andi is an impostor and it doesn’t give rise to any clever gambits. A little more effort could have made this a twist that improved the story but instead it just undercuts our investment in what we thought we knew.
Finally, in The Last Jedi Johnson sets up the infamous hyperdrive kamikaze scene, where one ship rams another at near lightspeed in spite of the ways that contradicts everything else we’ve seen about the hyperdrive in the past including the previous installment in the franchise, Rogue One, where we see a ship at near lightspeed collide with another and get smashed to rubble without harming the other one. Give the hypderdrive kamikaze it’s due. It’s an impressive visual. It also shows a lack of care for the previous story and a lack of imagination for how he will get to his desired visual. There are may ways he could have achieved this. In fact in said previous film we see ships using ramming in ways suited to the Star Wars universe.
Johnson is supposed to be a genius artiste, setting up common tropes and then subverting them with his clever movie making. However, when he subverts he does it in the laziest way possible. You thought Marta couldn’t lie? Surprise! She can! You thought Andi was one person? Surprise! She was someone else! In fact, in Glass Onion the story is so bad that the characters themselves insult it as moronic. However, hanging a lampshade on your story’s lazily used tropes doesn’t make them okay. It just points out your laziness.
Waititi and Gunn are likewise both artists with their own visions that they seem intent on forcing into any narrative they produce and not making the least concessions to it. Gunn relies on character tropes to replace much of his character development. Waititi shoves jokes into his movies without trying to smooth the transition from narrative to joke or make the joke organically arise from the situation. It’s deeply frustrating, especially as these directors show so much talent in many other areas of their movie making.
Most of all it’s frustrating that people are so content with cheap entertainment. It is great to see people creating at their highest levels but when they only put their passion and effort into a very narrow band of what they make it shows incredible contempt for their creations and their audience. Hopefully one day we’ll all have more care for what we create and consume.
A Double Edged Story
The power of story to uplift often necessitates we first confront the darkest parts of the world, whether the real world we live in or a world that only exists in fiction. Depicting the darkness of the world is very difficult. It’s difficult for a number of reasons. You have to learn about the darkness, which is decidedly unpleasant, you have to depict the darkness without running off your audience and you have to expose the darkness without reveling in it. Beyond that there’s one final problem.
There may be nothing to learn from passing through the darkness.
Last year I was told that if I really wanted to understand scifi fandom in general and the Science Fiction Writer’s of America specifically then I needed to read a book called The Last Closet: The Dark Side of Avalon by Moira Greyland. I had never been that interested in the SFWA and fandom has always struck me as a tad… obsessive. But I do enjoy scifi and I was given to understand Greyland had unique insights into what made some of the biggest scifi writers of the last generation tick. So I decided to check out the book by reading Amazon’s free sample.
Let me start at the end: I can’t recommend this book to anyone outside a very select group of people. Greyland has survived some of the darkest things I have ever heard. Her survival in and of itself would be a superhuman feat, the fact that she lives a wholesome life, creates beautiful music and has forgiven those who tormented her is truly, genuinely inspiring, a testament to the grace of God to redeem even the worst of circumstances. Many who have endured similar things say reading her book has helped them.
I believe this to be true, because I am in no place to contradict it. In fact, that testimony meshes well with what I’ve observed of human nature myself.
That said, I don’t know as The Last Closet has anything to offer anyone else who reads it. Those are my thoughts on the book broadly speaking and, before I delve into my reasoning deeper, let me give you a chance to jump off this ride here, dear reader. Greyland’s story is disturbing even removed by several layers of discussion. If you don’t wish to delve into very disturbing topics, now is the time to get off this ride.
Moira Greyland was the daughter of Martin Breen and Marion Zimmer Bradley. Breen was an early participant in scifi fandom, contributing to many fan magazines and appearing at many scifi conventions in the early years of these events, long before TV shows like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica put the genre out for the general public. Bradley was an award winning fantasy writer – fantasy and science fiction have long been related genres and there was less of a barrier between them in the past – who published dozens of novels including The Mists of Avalon, which is her most famous work.
Breen was also a convicted child molester. His wife was aware of and covered up for his crimes, facts she testified to during Breen’s trial. If Greyland’s testimony is to be believed – and I see no reason it shouldn’t be – Bradley was also a child molester. Neither parent spared their own children their predations. The Last Closet is a complete accounting of their crimes, as far as Greyland can recall them and supported, as much as possible, from the public record.
To the extent I can praise the book, I find Greyland’s work in sourcing letters, articles and court transcripts to supplement her own narrative quite impressive. It speaks to her strong desire to be as fair as possible. I am also staggered by what reads as real, genuine pity and compassion that the author has for her subjects. Martin Breen and Marion Zimmer Bradley both suffered terrible childhoods and, as is so often the case, were themselves victims of the horrors they visited on others. These events doubtless warped their outlooks and poisoned their attitudes.
The prose of the book is very readable. In fact it feels very much like blog writing, a very folksy, easy to read kind of writing that blunts some of the force of the things it describes. Greyland does run a blog and her experience with this kind of accessible prose shows. She intermixes the factual narrative with pieces of poetry she has written over the years to help her process her trauma. These pieces are, frankly, terrifying. As someone who has never come close to the level of trauma Greyland has experienced, reading those verses felt a bit like walking over cracked ice, wondering if I was about to slip through into the trauma beneath.
As I said before, Greyland survived her childhood. Amazingly she even managed to live out her own dreams – she got married, had children and is a professional harpist with several albums of music available. She has forgiven her parents. Yet I cannot recommend anyone, outside her fellow abuse survivors, deliberately read her book.
Listen. The world is often a horrible, depraved place. Although it is rarer than it should be, people do survive the depravity of the world and bear witness to the goodness of God and the potential we all have to survive the worst circumstances. I have never doubted any of these things.
I wish that I could say Greyland’s story shocked me. Whether it is because I am cynical, jaded or just too aware of what my own sinful nature could do if unchecked, I have to say it did not. I always knew these things were happening somewhere. What it did do was sadden me and enrage me. Having read The Last Closet I now know a whole series of things about scifi conventions and the people who run them that only serves to stoke empty anger and grief. There is some consolation in knowing the victim has overcome these things.
However, I was not a victim of Greyland’s suffering. I have no one to forgive and only one lesson to take away from the story: Some things are beyond my control.
So I cannot recommend this book to most people. I wouldn’t even suggest reading the free sample – the story has that captivating quality of many horror stories that makes it difficult to look away once you’ve begun. It will leave you with very little deeper understanding of human nature, unless you are one of those who believes we are fundamentally good, and will leave a great deal of emotional baggage you’ve picked up quite vicariously. I’m almost certain that’s an unhealthy trade.
All that said, I also cannot suggest you avoid this book. In her introduction, Greyland states that she thinks one of the biggest benefits of her book is that it overcomes denial. It helped her make peace with what happened to her in part through her admitting it had happened. In the detailed recounting she stripped off some of the varnish she’d put over the ugliest memories. Abuse survivors also found it helped them admit the truth of their experiences.
One reason Breen and Bradley got away with their predatory behavior for so long was that so many people were in denial about it. I do not believe in widespread conspiracies to silence victims. I do believe that widespread abuse can be met with equally widespread denial that makes dealing with the abuse impossible. It is possible that The Last Closet can become a sword that helps people clear away denial that stands in their way. It may be that some will need to read it to convince themselves.
And some people will have to read it just so they know that the resource exists and how it can best be used.
So in the end, I find myself in a very strange situation. I can’t really recommend Greyland’s book but I also can’t say you won’t find a use for it if you do read it. So, for perhaps the second or third time in my years of blogging, I must simply place these facts about the book before you, dear reader, and leave them for you to make up your own mind.
The Gospel According to Earth – Afterwords
Well, it’s done.
Early in writing The Gospel According to Earth I had to confront the fact that there wasn’t really an ending to the story about Earth putting an end to evil government. The unfortunate reality is, mankind isn’t inherently good. I know that’s not an evaluation that’s particularly popular today but it’s a foundational part of my way of thinking and I don’t really believe we’ve ever completely pulled away from being a savage society where the powerful abuse the weak however they wish. We got further from that than ever before in the United States, I think. Even in this day and age it’s still a global problem, though, and as I worked to game it out in my head I realized that the future Earth at the heart of the Triad World novels would reform itself to an extent only to boomerang right back to depravity once again. Trying to sketch out a path for the Triad Worlds to build a new, utopian Earth was, therefore, foolish.
So I decided not to. That really wasn’t what I wanted to do when I started The Gospel According to Earth anyway. My purpose was to show the mindset that led UNIGOV to try rewriting the entirety of human history and why, totalitarian impulses or no, it is fundamentally wrong. Hopefully in the pages of the story you have just read I have succeeded. Since the Triad World novels are intended to be grounded in reality, rather than an exercise in the kind of unbridled idealism that some of the major scifi franchises they draw inspiration from, I chose not to close the loop on all the characters the story introduces.
In particular, I never gave the ‘great men of history’ the story introduces specific arcs or defined ending points. While I got to know and like Admiral Carrington and Captain Gyle I never intended to leave them on a specific note. They were just ships passing us in the night. I was far more interested in the lowly characters in the Fleet when writing and I particularly wanted to bring a solid ending point to Corpral Langley by the end of this story.
This was a bit of a challenge, since I felt I left him in a good place at the end of Schrodinger’s Book. In fact, that was a major part of why I chose not to reuse him or Aubrey as viewpoint characters in Martian Scriptures, along with my desire to see another part of the fleet. By the same token, this is also why I didn’t reintroduce Volk Fyodorovich in The Gospel According to Earth. Lang had to be the story’s touchstone character and I think he managed it well. I hope you’ve found following him as interesting as I have.
With a number of new viewpoint characters and an entirely new thematic through-line to keep track of, The Gospel According to Earth was a challenge to outline and write. The necessity of finding a good place to leave the story was also difficult. I don’t think I’d be a great intrigue writer so I chose not to go too deep into the wrangling needed to drag a peace treaty out of UNIGOV. Instead I ultimately chose to stop on the cusp of that new challenge and leave the rest of the details to your imaginations.
In the end I wanted the Triad World novels to concern themselves with questions of how we will govern ourselves, what we will trust in and how we can know if that trust is misplaced. I’m sure I’ve only marginally achieved those goals. Still, I had an enjoyable time writing these stories and I hope you’ve equally enjoyed reading them.
Now my typical structure at this juncture would be taking a week off. But, as you may have noticed, I just took my usual Christmas break and tacked an extra week on there before posting this! Therefore my next series of essays on writing will begin next week. I have a lot to say on any number of subjects, so strap in! This will be different.
Writing Vlog – 12-23-2022
This week’s writing vlog is the last of the year. It’s only fitting that I look at how I feel I’ve done this year before setting goals for next year!
Writing Vlog – 12-16-2022
This week’s vlog has some fun end of year updates:
Writing Vlog – 11-23-2022
Writing Vlog: A few updates and important links!
Writing Vlog – 10-04-2022
I’m starting to scribble down some new ideas. More in this week’s vlog: