Monday, July 30, 2012

Coursera - Fantasy & Science Fiction

I recently signed up for a free course over at Coursera - Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World. For anyone curious about how this course works, I thought I would do a little description of my experience so far, with my understanding of what will happen in the upcoming days.

The first session started last Tuesday and our first homework (a short analytical essay about Grimm's Fairytales) is due this Tuesday. Afterward, peers will grade the essays and the professor (Eric Rabkin from the University of Michigan) will post a lecture about the week's unit. Peer feedback is due by Thursday, at which point the submissions for the next assignment will open.

The lecture happening after the writing assignment is a mixed blessing. This keeps the students' work from being influenced by the professor's views on the piece(s). Whereas I typically have a better time generating essay topics via interactive discussion, the online course doesn't offer quite the same kind of environment. There are, however, forums set up and a lot of active discussions on them. I have posted to a couple of threads, but not entered into any conversations yet.

Next week's unit is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. (It just so happens that I picked up this book as part of my summer reading and started reading it a couple of weeks ago.)

The course will continue unfolding with the same structure, moving through the different texts in the syllabus: Dracula (Stoker), Frankenstein (Shelley), Stores & Poems of Hawthorne & Poe, The Island of Dr. Moreau/The Invisible Man/"The Country of the Blind"/"The Star" (Wells), A Princess of Mars & Herland (Burroughs & Gilman), The Martian Chronicles (Bradbury), The Left Hand of Darkness (LeGuin), Little Brother (Doctorow). It's a pretty hefty reading list, but I'm going to do my best to keep up with it, in addition to starting the Fall semester. (Of course I'm taking a literature course there, too.)

And in September? I'm looking at also taking Modern & Contemporary American Poetry taught by Al Filreis from the University of Pennsylvania (still on Coursera). It is another 10 week course.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Flash Fiction Challenge: Time Travel

Another wonderful Flash Fiction Challenge from This week's theme was "Must love time travel" and really - who doesn't? 

Tentative title: The Last Way

word count: 1000 (/confetti!)

The Christmas bulb cracked beneath her boot and she paused. The room was layered with debris - ribbons, tinsel, strings of lights, and ornaments. The whole place was a mess, and it reeked of several unpleasant things. The small hand of a plastic doll poked between the loops of a bow, pudgy fingers reaching for salvation. She squatted to take a closer look.

It was a gift from her grandmother, for her fifth birthday. Straight out of the box, its left eye wouldn't close when it was laid on its back. They were inseparable. She carried it to school, took it to bed, set it up on the edge of the tub at bath time. The doll even had its own presents under the Christmas tree for two years.

"Cassandra."  She pinched the doll’s hand, pulling it free of the holiday refuse. It was only the arm. She sighed and dropped it. As she stood, she pressed a button on a device strapped to her wrist.

"Too late again. The previous rescue attempts seem only to have worsened the situation. Scanning the premises for possible survivors." A hiss of static answered. She pressed a series of buttons and listened. The device offered no indication that anyone had heard her report. "Piece of shit."

A thump sounded from somewhere in the house. She took two long steps and flattened her back against the wall. There was no hope of moving silently across the remnants of the tree and its decorations, so she remained where she was, waiting. Another sound, a rattle – she recognized it as the doorknob to the hall closet – was followed by the creak of hinges. She inched along the wall, her left hand settling on the grip of her weapon. Someone was moving just as slowly and carefully as she. Her leg bumped against an umbrella that was precariously balanced atop a crumpled box. She grabbed it with her right hand.

The cautious steps in the hallway came to a stop. She took a deep breath to steel herself for what might be waiting. She swung her body around the corner, her pistol taking the lead. Time stopped; not literally, but for the woman in the hall, all things came to a temporal crawl. Down the hallway, not five feet from where she stood, was her, aged seven. She was barefoot, in her pajamas – the pink rosette nightgown that she’d kept until she’d worn holes in the elbows – with bruises up and down her arms. There was a cut on her forehead and so much dried blood in her hair.

“Mommy!” Her 30-years-younger self paid no mind to the weapon aimed at her and ran forward to hug the woman she thought was her mother. The woman would have to deal with the fact that she apparently had turned into her mother another time; a temporal disaster was flinging itself at her.

“Stop!” She lifted the umbrella and opened it. The obstacle startled the child and her sudden stop put her off balance. She teetered before falling back on her butt. “I’m not mom, honey, I’m not mom.” The little girl started to cry.

Her wrist radio crackled and a voice came through. “Icarus, can you hear us? Icarus!”  

She holstered her pistol, keeping the opened umbrella between her and… herself. “I read you, Tower. I’ve just found myself. I need back up.”

“Found yourself? How deep,” the hiss wavered; the voice on the other end was laughing.

“Send back up A.S.A.P., Tower, this is a temporal threat level Tau. Send Demeter. Repeat, send Demeter.”

“Demeter is on her way,” a sterner voice this time, “And we’re glad to reach you Icarus, thought you’d gone too far this time.”

The child had stopped her crying, listening to the fuzzy conversation. “Icarus?” She hiccupped the name.

Icarus lowered the umbrella, pulling it closed, setting the tip on the floor in front of her. “Yeah, that’s what they call me. And you’re Icara, right?” The little girl nodded. “Alright, Icara, please don’t cry. I know I look like mom, but I’m not mom, okay? I’m you, and as much as I would like to pick you up and carry you out of here, we can’t touch. Someone is going to come soon to get us, and carry you, okay?”

The girl picked herself up off the floor and walked back down the hall to the closet. She reached inside, pulling out a small bundle, and hugged it close. Icarus watched her younger self as she returned to the midway point in the hallway. “Okay, but only if Cassandra comes too.”

“Of course Cassandra can come.” She moved back into the living room, retrieved the discarded doll arm and tossed it to the girl, who refused to leave the hallway. “Is there anyone else here with you and Cassandra?”

The girl shook her head as she wiggled the arm into an opening in her bundle.

“Do you know how long you’ve been alone? With Cassandra, I mean.” She remembered how mad she used to get at her mother when she didn’t include Cassandra in questions or conversations.

“Since the weird earthquake.”

“I wasn’t here for that, honey, when was that? A few days ago?”

“I don’t remember. I stayed in the closet after mommy told me not to come out.” She hugged the bundle closer.

“Can you go down the hall into mommy and daddy’s room for a second, while I look in the closet?”

“No.” The refusal was immediate and as solid as stone. Icarus knew what was in there, then. The girl hadn’t stayed in the closet the whole time, but after what she saw in that room, there was little doubt that she did exactly as she was told.

Time ticked by in silence as the two watched each other and waited. When Demeter came, Icara fell into her arms and started crying again. Icarus watched them leave the house that she’d grown up in for 18 years.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Judging A Book By Its Cover

"Never judge a book by its cover" - this advice is meant to apply to more than just books and I've had success using it in my daily life. When it comes to books, I stand with it in spirit. In truth, however, I'm completely guilty of looking at a book's cover and moving on without giving its content the time of day. This case of hypocrisy is one I revisit now and then, and try to examine to see why I would proliferate this advice when I'm not entirely willing to follow it for myself. (I guess it's not unlike MOST advice in which we all traffic.)

Window Shopping

I'm no expert on the concept of cover design, or what makes things "pretty" - I only know what catches my eye, and what doesn't hurt it. Even when I'm not shopping for anything in particular, some aesthetics demand to be seen. For books, this means their spines need to be legible and attractive. Believe it or not - those plain black spines with plain white san serif fonts have a better chance of getting me to pay attention than the busy ones with script fonts. (A good title doesn't hurt here, either.)

When confronted with the facing cover, I have a soft spot for fantasy inspired art. At the same time, I like a simplistic framing device more often than a full-cover style.

The old Dragonlance novels, for example, had great cover art by Larry Elmore, but also a solid cover framing which allowed the title and the Dragonlance branding to present themselves without interfering with the art or looking too busy. When the publishers wanted to update the look of the books, they went to full cover art. I like those copies distinctively less and will go out of my way to find second-hand Dragonlance novels just for the older covers. Since that time, they did go with a compromise on the two styles, leaving a solid bar across the top and on the bottom, but switching artists (to Matt Stawicki).

Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné series also had a plethora of different cover styles. You can see them: Here. My favorite is the Gould series from 1983, followed closely by Yoshitaka Amano's Japanese covers the following year.

It may sound like I don't enjoy full-art covers, but I do! It's just a little harder to catch my eye with them. Especially in fantasy & science fiction - they all start to look the same after a while.

From My Shelves

First, the plain cover. This book had a dust jacket at some point, but I picked it up in a secondhand shop completely naked. This is Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural,  part of The Modern Library published by Random House, Inc. in 1972 (renewing the 1944 copyright, it says). Aside from the content (which is my true love, here), I love a plain cover. Gold lettering? Even better! Wide enough to display the title so I don't have to tip my head to read? We have a winner.

Next, the simplistic cover. Never mind that this is Stephen King (one of my favorite storytellers). I am in love with this cover aesthetic. This reprint of The Eyes of the Dragon was done by Signet Fiction (a part of the Penguin Group (US) Inc.) as part of a massive reprint of King's works, in the early 2000's (there's no reprint date on the copyright page, and different pages provide different reprint dates but most range from 2001-2004). In fact, my first large purchase of King's books came with this reprint line because I loved the covers that much. They are easy to read, they give a kind of coherence to the shelf, and they aren't very distracting - while still being pleasant to the eye.

Finally, the full cover art. I spotted this book in a bargain bin (more like a shelf, and on the bottom no less) in a K-Mart sometime around my 15th birthday. I hadn't read the first books in the series (it would take a few years more for me to have funds of my own with which to hunt them down), but this cover said I had to take it home, and made promises to me. It promised I would love the book, it promised me a struggling protagonist, or a sympathetic antagonist (I got both), and a different world. It delivered.

Promises Made, Promises Broken

Speaking of promises - a cover, to me, is a window into the kind of dedication and care that has been put into the creation of a book. I understand that, by and large, the author doesn't necessarily have any sort of say over their covers (and some shouldn't - writers are writers, not necessarily very good at presenting or designing a visual aesthetic). This decision lies with a publishing company's arts department. In the case of self-publishers and small press, however, the situation rests more with the author than not.

That being said - my criticism rests on both sets of shoulders equally. I've seen big publishing houses put terrible covers on books and I've seen self publishing authors go with amazing covers.

Whatever impression a cover gives, there is a promise that the inside of the book is going to deliver on it. Bad covers promise sloppy stories, pasted together from disjointed ideas, and bound inside a cover that serves as a train-wreck of a metaphor. Good covers promise carefully drawn characters, stories that follow some sort of logic (fiction need only follow its own rules of logic, not the real world's), and care given to - if not every word - the story overall.

While these promises don't always prove true, they are still the messages being sent by the covers.

It's hard NOT to judge a book by its cover, and I think that perhaps we shouldn't always be cover-blind. Despite that, I still try - now and then - to pick up a book with a cover that I don't like, but a title that I do, and give the interior a try. I also appreciate new & different covers that move away from the traditional forms. (Silhouette and semi-abstract styles, for example.)

Do you have book cover pet peeves, preferences, ponderings?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Flash Fiction Challenge: Noticed Android, Wondering Chamber

Using Chuck Wendig's own advice:
If something works for you, adopt it.
If something does not work, discard it.

I have opted to bend the rules for this week's Flash Fiction Challenge . Using a random sentence generator, CW came up with: “The noticed android walks past a wondering chamber.” Present tense didn't work for me, so instead of using this as the first sentence, per the challenge, I am instead using the sentence as the main premise to get the story going.

Here we go:

word count: 773

The door to the Wondering Chamber stood at the end of a cold and sterile hallway. Six security cameras scanned every inch, though hardly anyone ever had cause to explore there. No one ever went into or came out of the room via this door; it was more of a formality of design than of function. Inside, bundles of circuit boards traveled into the room on a conveyor belt, passed through several nondescript machines, and then exited the room on the opposite side.

Once a week, a young girl - she appeared no more than nine or ten years of age - came to the window in the door of the Wondering Chamber to watch what happened inside. Sometimes she watched for just a few minutes, and sometimes for a few hours. When she was satisfied or had been entertained enough, she left the hallway, waving to each camera without looking at it. This girl was Alice, and her father owned the room and the hallway and the cameras and the building that contained them all.

When Alice named the room "the Wondering Chamber", there had been no objections. It was impossible to argue with the child and so no one did. In fact, most everyone did their very best not to speak to Alice at all. It wasn't that she was a bad child - on the contrary, she was a very well behaved child. She was also a very smart child, and when she took a stance, she had a way of becoming immovable on the subject. In addition to this, Alice was given everything she wanted by her father. All employees in the building were instructed that the girl was the highest authority on any matter aside from the running of the business, and that all topics related to business be avoided entirely when speaking with the child.

This caused several uncomfortable situations when Alice insisted on attending board meetings, or decided the view from a particular office window was her favorite during a round of conference calls.

It came as no surprise when Alice returned from her latest visit to the Wondering Chamber, sat in the tallest chair in her father's office, and asked, "Why do the cameras follow me in the hallway outside the Wondering Chamber?"

"For your protection, of course, my dear."  Her father answered this question every week. He did not look up from his paperwork anymore.

"You say that every week, father." Alice hopped down from the tall chair. "No one goes into that hallway but me, and no one can go into that part of the building except the people who work for you. Why wouldn't I be safe?"

"The world is an unexpected place, daughter. Don't you have lessons to do?"

"I finished them." Her father's office overlooked a network of cubicles. She watched the people in them. "Why is Mr. Robertson retiring?"

This question was new. "What?"

"He said he has worked here for 20 years and is retiring tomorrow."

Her father put his pen down on the polished wood surface of his desk. "He told you that?"

"I remember when you hired him it was just after my birthday. He can't have been here 20 years in less than just one."

Her father's chair creaked and she heard him stand up. Each step echoed in the room and he stood behind her, one fatherly hand on her shoulder. "That would be impossible, wouldn't it? Perhaps Mr. Robertson was trying out a new joke with you."

"No, father." The girl turned and looked up at her father. He smiled down at her, but it was not the way he usually smiled at her. "Mr. Robertson looks different than he did when you hired him, but you don't look different and I don't look different. I have not had another birthday party which happens every year, but he says he has had 20. Almost everyone in your meetings looks different, like they have had 20 birthdays. Why?"

Her father squatted down in front of Alice, both hands resting on her shoulders. His knees clicked, no one else's knees clicked.  "You are a very special girl, Alice." This was his answer whenever she asked why she could not see where the things went after they left the Wondering Chamber, whenever she asked why she could not go outside of the building except into the inside courtyard, whenever she asked why she never saw other children.

Alice made no response to her father, except to frown. He smiled in return, brushing her hair back and tucking it behind her ear. Alice heard a different click.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Sexed-Up Classics? No Thank You.

I am a little bit of a hermit, in the sense that I don't often read the news and I avoid most forms of media. I don't like reality television and I am usually disgusted at things that emerge as booming additions to popular culture.

Quite the stick in the mud, right? Maybe. On the other hand, I get excited about new books and new shows with engaging stories, or twists on old ones. My hobbies include things like role-playing and reading and writing (obviously) and sometimes entertaining the idea of crafting. I play the "what if" game with pieces of everything in the day to day, and the weirder those scenarios, the happier I get.

Then I was linked to a HuffingtonPost (UK) article about turning literary classics into literary porn. Riding on the sordid coattails of Fifty Shades of Grey, a book publisher has announced plans to sexify classics.

At first, I frothed at the mouth at this idea, and then I calmed down and tried to consider ways in which I'd supported changes to classics for the purpose of entertainment - a primary example of this being my delight at hearing about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Was my delight at this any different than the joy that thousands of women must be feeling in their nether regions when they think of Wuthering Heights with sex scenes?

I certainly hope so. I can't really say one way or the other objectively. There are probably people out there who were as offended by the idea of zombies in Austen's tale as I am by the notion that... well, read for yourself:
Clandestine Classics, the adult fiction publishers sought to justify the decision to crowbar 'bondage scenes between Catherine and Heathcliff' into Wuthering Heights and sex scenes between Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson into classics by Arthur Conan Doyle by suggesting the authors themselves might have quite approved.
Look - if you want to turn it into literary pornography, just say that's what you want to do. Do not say that you think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would approve of Sherlock Holmes sexing up Dr. Watson! (Popular culture has made John Watson into a character that is not altogether the same as he was in Doyle's original stories. While I feel the spirit of the character remains, they just aren't the same - so if you are picturing Holmes-Cumberbatch or Holmes-DowneyJr and their respective Watsons' making out, it's not the same as the Real Holmes & Watson.)

This has been the fundamental problem I've always had with the idea of "fan fiction" - it presumes certain things and disregards the author's intentions. (Nevermind the fact that there are many fan-fiction authors who are very talented writers, if only they'd write their OWN material.)

My objections have nothing to do with the "sanctity" of classical literature - they have everything to do with good taste and calling out exploitation when it's obvious.This is obviously exploitation.

Ultimately, my feelings are this: If you want to publish literary porn (erotica - whatever word makes you feel better), write your own stories, don't shoehorn it into someone else's.

How does this make you feel? Are you ready to see the restraint in Wuthering Heights broken, in favor of lusty sessions between Catherine and Heathcliff? (You are more than welcome to disagree with me or anyone else, just do it respectfully.)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Reviewish: The Amazing Spider-Man

This isn't where I was thinking I would start my blog, but it seems as good of a place as any.

I realize that I may be a terrible "film critic" - a title I've never claimed for myself. Although Roger Ebert's review reflects my feelings about the new Spider-Man reboot, I keep seeing largely negative reviews from people who have issues with the soundtrack, or the deviations from the comic books, or just because "didn't they do this 10 years ago?"

I went into The Amazing Spider-Man with no expectations, except that it should be somehow "better" than the first. Let me rephrase that; I did not have an expectation that the movie should repeat, re-represent, or retell any particular aspects of the comics (keeping in mind that Marvel has had several different iterations of reality/multiverses and multiple retellings of Spider-Man's origin story) or the Raimi films.

What did I expect?

I expected a good Story; a story that showed me the development of a teenage boy who gains superpowers from a spider bite, on top of dealing with all the regular problems that come with being a teenager. Not only a teenager, Peter Parker is also a kid whose parents have left him (abandoned, even) with relatives, is a bit nerdy and awkward, and has to process very important ethical and moral questions above and beyond what at typical person must face. I expected the story to progress logically, to keep me engaged, and to resolve in a way that made sense without a feeling of deus ex machina (in a world with superheroes & supervillains, there's a lot more leeway on what acts as deus ex machina, but you can still sense a cheapness when it happens, and it usually requires an even BIGGER power to pull supers out of the fire).

The Amazing Spider-Man met and exceeded all of these expectations. Andrew Garfield was extremely comfortable in the skin of Peter Parker; his love of the character showed in his excellent portrayl of it. Peter's reactions to events in his life were believable and realistic. There were no forced-angsty moments, and when the right amount of teenage emotional conflict reared its head, the character was not forced to stay in a scene or on camera for longer than any teenager would remain in that particular situation. The movie, overall, was extremely satisfying for me, given my expectations.

Some of the nitpicks I've encountered:

Soundtrack - from my single viewing, I remember seeing 3 or 4 songs listed in the credits. Songs, not score. Of these songs, I remember ONE during the course of the movie, after an adorable but awkward encounter between Peter and Gwen. The score, however, was wonderful in the theater. It wasn't distracting, and in the quiet scenes where it became noticable, it was as fitting as the scenery.

The Suit - The suit doesn't get a lot of time in the story. There is the way in which Peter learns he should probably cover up his face if he's going to go around looking for the guy that killed Uncle Ben (spoiler alert?), there is a little research, and a very short construction scene. Some people pick at how suddenly Peter becomes an excellent sewer due to his powers. Sewing, by hand, is NOT a difficult skill to pick up.  In any case, the suit is not a focal point of the story and I had no problem with it being glossed over. It didn't NEED super detail. There was no time for it.

Gwen Didn't Know - For those unfamiliar with the comics, the general canon for Gwen is that she had no idea that Peter was Spider-Man. This has been altered in the film, as have some of the events that happened in relation to Gwen, her father, and Spider-Man - and their interesting interpersonal relationships. These changes did not bother me because they made sense in the context of the film. Given the number of reboots/retellings/alternate universes that have happened in the Marvel universe, I'm surprised at how much criticism this gets. In at least one iteration, I felt the comic dragged the reveal out too long - but that is also the nature of the medium, which brings me to my next point of minor contention.

Film is a completely different medium through which to tell a story. A comic, done weekly or monthly, is set up to build up tension that will carry over to the next week, the next installment. You receive a rather small snippet of story with a lot of repetition or filler, with a major arc lasting months or even years. A movie has roughly 2 hours to give you a complete and satisfying arc. While this film could've given more time to a few moments (I personally would have liked to see more development between Peter & Dr. Connors, as well as a little more between Peter & Gwen after the climax), I didn't feel cheated.

All in all, everyone MUST make their own decision as to what they like and what they don't; my criteria makes it a lot easier for me to enjoy a good story, regardless of any source material.