Category Archives: Book Review: Science Fiction

Musing on Some Elements that Work in Fantasy, Part Two: Iconic Imagery

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One of the most iconic images in all of fantasy literature: The One Ring from The Lord of the Rings.

If you read Part One of this series, you already know that some partners and I are starting a new publishing company, ePic Adventures, Inc. As I mentioned, we’ll be doing print books, both hardcover and paperback, but our emphasis is on eBooks designed to stretch the capabilities of smartphone and tablets and redefine what an eBook can be in the age of transmedia. Again, think of them as eBooks 2.0, or the Magician’s Book from Narnia, or the tablet/smartphone equivalent of a volume from the library at Hogwarts.

As we build the ePic Books brand, we’re focusing on a single genre (or range of subgenres, I guess), at least for the first year or two: fantasy. A part of our strategy involves looking for certain elements that the very best and most successful fantasies share in common. When I say “most successful,” I’m talking about the classics of the genre, the most beloved and enduring works that stand out, across years and even generations. These are the works that shine above the rest, when as works of equal, or arguably even greater, quality dim into obscurity.

One of those elements that most enduring and successful works seem to share, Iconic Imagery, is very closely related to the Iconic Locations detailed in Part One. If you haven’t read it, skip back. It’s okay. we’ll wait.

Back? Okay then.

Absolutely iconic.

Star Trek is a terrific source of iconic images: the famous badge, the bridge of the Enterprise (always recognizable, generation after generation), tribbles, and, of course, Spock’s ears and Vulcan salute. Bladerunner? Don’t even get me started.

Speaking of the bridge of the Enterprise, how is an iconic image different from an iconic location? I admit the line is thin. In fact, at least three of the examples I mentioned in Part One, the Lamppost in Narnia, the Starship Enterprise, and the Death Star from Star Wars, might better be called iconic images rather than locations. The lamppost especially … our first view of it includes two characters, Lucy and Mr. Tumnus with his umbrella and bundles; the characters are as much a part of that scene as the lamppost and the snow-covered trees. So whether you consider it a location or an image, the point remains; it’s iconic and unforgettable. You want images like that in your story … assuming that you are striving for one of those enduring, unforgettable classics. And if you aren’t, seriously, why the hell not?

I should also point out that iconic images, at least as I’m thinking of them, aren’t always exclusively visual (which makes me think I have likely picked the wrong word, but there you are). Consider the Lightsabers in Star Wars. Those glowing laser swords are unforgettable—and are even, I think, a part of why the first film was so astonishing successful. But as iconic as that image is, most of us, I am willing to wager, can recognize a lightsaber even without the visual. The sound, that unmistakable hum, is as much as part of the integral lightsaber-ness as the visual design. If someone plays you a clip of a light saber activating or deactivating, you’ll know it at once. Go head, give it a try.

Star Wars is another gold mine for iconic images: The Millennium Falcon, the X-wing, Yoda, Wookies, the creatures in the cantina, Princess Leia’s hair buns, R2 and 3PO…. In fact, that’s one of the differences between the original trilogy and the prequels. The original trilogy is chock full of iconic images. The prequels have far more incredible and imaginative designs. But how many stand out? How many are memorable? Of those, how many didn’t appear in the original trilogy first? Off hand, Darth Maul’s character design is about all I can come up with. Could you sketch him? Or even describe him in a sentence?

Tolkien’s ring is one of the most iconic images in all of fantasy. So are his hobbits, with their pipes, their small stature, and, of course, the furry feet. What would the Harry Potter books be without, say, the wands or the moving paintings? I can honestly say that I remember more about the visuals of The Wind in the Willows, from the characters to the locations, than I can about the story itself (which means it’s probably time to revisit it).

Captain Hook’s hook is an iconic image that helps define him as a character. without it, he’s a generic pirate.

Personally, I think the best and strongest iconic images are related closely to a character if only because they have the effect of making that character iconic almost by consequence, although of course the image alone won’t do that. But at a glance, they give the character a very specific look, and they tell us a little something about the character. More, the character just won’t be the same without it, like the Dread Pirate Roberts without his black shirt and mask.

Some examples? Remember how Darth Vader’s iconic black helmet and cape stands out from that sea of white-armored Stormtroopers the first time we see him in Star Wars. Think of Indiana Jones with his jacket, whip, and hat. He’s still Indy without them, of course. He’s wearing a white dinner jacket in the opening scenes of The Temple of Doom. But when I saw the film on opening night, the first real spontaneous round of applause from the audience came when Indy pulled on his familiar “uniform” on that little plane.

If you see a poster—or read a description—of a muscled man wearing a loincloth in the jungle, chances are you’ll assume it’s Tarzan. If you see a stern male figure smoking a large pipe and wearing a deerstalker, you’re probably not thinking Nero Wolfe or James Bond. When you see a man on a white horse wearing a white hat and a mask, you won’t have to ask, at least not with a straight face, who was that masked man? It’s the Lone Ranger.

Bob Kane’s original concept for The Batman, before Bill Finger suggested the dark knight we know today.

The colorful uniform made Superman stand out from his pulp-era forefathers like Doc Savage and The Shadow, themselves iconic. When Bob Kane created Batman, he originally envisioned a bright red body suit, bat wings, and a domino mask. Bill Finger contributed a different look … the brooding cape and cowl. Would Batman have worked either way? Maybe. But I doubt it.

Granted, iconic imagery is a pretty shallow way to define a character, and it takes far more than a distinctive look to make a character truly classic. The icons help us recognize a character at a glance (Harry Potter’s glasses and scar); they don’t make us care. It’s at best just one layer, the surface one, but it’s a good place to start.

Iconic images present a challenge to the writer. It easy to show an iconic image in, say, a film or a comic. On the page? Not so much. I include the screenplay page here, too. Strong visuals help a film sell. Regardless of the medium, iconic images have to be described in sufficient detail that we can see it, sure, but the best resonate through the other senses as well. When you’re reading or writing, think of sound (remember the lightsabers), smell, and weight. The icons have to be real. In this case, the written word has an advantage. You can’t smell a film, but a writer can make a scent real. For better or for worse. A film can show us a magic sword, but the written word can show us what it feels like to hold that power pulsing through the palms of your hands.

They present challenges, but they have advantages. They make your character (or prop, or location, or vehicle, or…) a part of the collective zeitgeist. Just about any man, woman, or child can recognize Superman or Mickey Mouse at a glance. Most of them can recognize Harry Potter, Spider-man, or a lightsaber. If you want to have your work adapted for the screen, or illustrated, iconic images give the interpreters a strong foundation from which to start.

And finally (this may sound a little crass), iconic images are merchandisable. You can make toys, t-shirts, costumes, posters, mugs, trashcans, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Just look at what Patrick Rothfuss has been able to do. That’s a way to keep people talking about, and promoting, your work. And it’s a pretty good way to make it attractive to studios and publishers. And it’s certainly something that’s on our checklist at ePic.

Any thoughts, writers and readers of the world?

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Book Review of something utterly new, strange, and powerful: “The Orange Eats Creeps”

Read The Orange Eats Creeps

See, there’s this thing I can’t help doing when I’m reading a novel. More often that I really care to admit, I find myself picturing the author in the act of crafting the page I’m reading. I don’t mean to. In a way, it sort of breaks the spell of the story. In another way, though, it sort of deepens that illusion of connection between writer and reader.

Usually, I picture a man in an untidy office surrounded by piles of books and papers, pounding some old-fashioned manual typewriter while downing mugs of hot, bitter coffee, or a woman scrawling in an elegantly-bound journal, her tongue wetting the corner of her lips in some over-stuffed but cozy Victorian parlor. In her case, the mug is a china cup, and the bitter coffee is tea with twists of steam that carry the scent of lemon. Sometimes I picture a shabby coffee house, all bohemian chic, sometimes a quaint pub, and sometimes a library, with hardwood shelves straining under the weight of two many leather-bound books. More than a of my imaginary writers inhabit those spaces.

It makes me uncomfortable to picture Grace Krilanovich crafting The Orange Eats Creeps. I get these fleeting, nightmarish image of a young woman, wild-eyed and too thin, scrawling the words on the underside of a bridge somewhere, or on the walls of the kind of bar I’d be afraid to enter, even if I was cool enough to know how to find it. I picture her mainlining caffeine laced with meth, or something, some drug I’ve read about in newspapers, not for stimulation but to dull the fire of stranger substances screaming though her veins like electricity. Because you see, witnessing the birth of an new kind of literature, a utterly new way to pound and twist blocks of English into something mind-blastingly fresh, is a little frightening.

Mind, I don’t know anything at all about Grace Krilanovich. Maybe she is huddled safely in a library or parlor, sipping tea and tracing neat letters on fine, cream-colored paper. Her words though, they come from a stranger, harsher, lovelier, and all together original place that is three parts in-your-face and one part heartbreak. Maybe she’s wearing a high-necked blouse and a jacket. I imagine it’s more likely to be a ratty t-shirt, one even the thrift store wouldn’t take, one with writing that holes and fading have long obscured, but might once have been something obscene, or maybe a prayer. You can’t tell. You’ve seen girls with shirts like that. But you’ve always looked away quickly, haven’t you? I have. And later, a part of me always wished I hadn’t.

Ernest Hemingway declared that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” He’s got a point, because starting with frank Huck and his innocent, original declarations on that raft, American literature has been about voice: about expressing something universal, but in an absolutely unique and personal way. At it’s best, American literature, from Twain to Faulkner to Bradbury to Pynchon, is about grabbing words by the root and pulling them, raw, out of a character’s soul and straight through the gut, to reveal something that absolutely couldn’t have been revealed in any other way, or by any other character.

Grace Krilanovich follows in that tradition. Her voice reminds me of a sort of stylistic love-child of William Burroughs, Phillip K. Dick, and some of the edgier grunge bands of the 90s (it’s best not to try to imagine the physical specifics of that metaphorical union). All the same, I can’t help feeling that listing her even among that august company does her something of a disservice, because while she is clearly a part of a continuum, comparison, pretty much by definition, makes her sound in some way derivative, and nothing could be farther from the truth. Grace Krilanovich has brought forth something new, fresh, and, yes, original.

Take three examples (that I picked largely because I could find them on the Internet without retyping them, but they are more than typical enough to make my point):

“Safeway at sunrise: we storm through the doors; totally wasted we run for the back, behind the scenes. We barricade the door so Josh can menace the bag boy. What would happen if you harnessed the sexual energy of hobo junkie teens? The world would explode and settle on the surface of another planet in a brown paste, is what. Cockroaches would lick it up and a new wave of narcissistic gypsy-slut shitheads would hatch out of tiny pores on their backs.”

Or this:

“We not only devour each other, but we bite, hard. We’re blood-hungry teenagers; our rage knows no bounds and coagulates the pulse of our victims on contact. we devour them, too; the bodies of mortals become drained when they reach our fangs. Our cause is nothing…I’ve been living off crank, cough syrup, and blood for a year now. I ride the rails with a bunch of immoral shitheads, hopping freight trains, secreted away in rail cars across this country. We have no home, no parents. I can’t remember being a child, maybe I never was one. But I’m sure I’ll never die; I get older, my body stays the same. My spine breaks and then gets back together. I have the Hepatitis, I give it to everyone, but it never will actually get me. Our kind doesn’t die from anything, all we do is die all the time.”

And this one:

“The city smelled like a wet paper bag. That great big dirty rag hung up in the sky, casting a shadow over the middle of town. A motel was strangely and inexplicably equipped with a smokestack and it spit streams of pigeon-shit colored smoke up into the sky.”

You get the idea. But don’t dare think The Orange Eats Creeps is just about attitude. I did, and so help me, I nearly missed that behind all that aggression was a rather heartbreaking mix of story and character. The voice captivated me, but it has a way of getting the hackles up. While my guard was raised, watching out for the relentless beating power of those words, the story snuck in past my shields and devastated me, leaving my heart a deserted city. I felt numbed and overwhelmed, moved and shaken. Mostly, I felt, well, exhilaration. I didn’t expect that. Not just any book can do that, move you that way, you know. You have to watch out for the ones that can. And you have to share them. Even when you don’t know quite what to say.

An update: A couple of people on Twitter noted that I never said anything about the story, aside from it’s impact. That’s because any kind of synopsis really does the book a disservice. But I aim to please, so here goes.

A band of self-described hobo vampire junkies roam a nightmarish, broken landscape—the Pacific Northwest of the 1990s. It’s not the Pacific Northwest I’ve seen as a tourist, though. Thank Heaven. And when i say vampires, don’t think Twilight, or anything else you know. They are creatures of appetite. The narrator, a girl with (apparently) drug-induced psychic abilities and a strange connection to a young member of the Donner Party (who credited her survival to her relationship with a hidden wooden doll), searches for her vanished foster sister along “The Highway That Eats People.” Meanwhile, she’s stalked by a monster out of a David Lynch film. She has no memory to speak of, only vague feelings, and she rambles like someone reporting the events of a fever dream.

We never really get a feel for how much of the events presented are “real,” and it doesn’t really matter. The events are shocking, sure, and fascinating. But the haunting power of the story comes from the stream of consciousness that carries us through them, and the burning question that haunted me on every page … is this really what it’s like in the brain of some drug-burned street kid in the urban underbelly of the Pacific Northwest? The story is fascinating, sure. But it what’s might be real that lingers after the last page is turned.

The Orange Eats Creeps is a new kind of literature for a century that’s just getting its feet wet. It’s an undefinable novel for a yet-to-be-defined era. It’s a product of its time, sure, but its one that I think has the power to endure. Ultimately, it is about matters of heart, family, and home, or lack thereof, themes that will always be universal. I’m still not quite sure how to respond to it. But I do know that it’s impossible to be indifferent. I wish I’d discovered it for my own fledgling publishing enterprise. I hope you’ll give it a try, and I hope you’ll let me know what you think.

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“Total Oblivion, More or Less” by Alan DeNiro

Read Total Oblivion, More or Less: A Novel

Total Oblivion, More or Less is a strange novel. In a lot of ways, in fact, it’s a novel about strangeness, and how ordinary people deal with it. Imagine Huck Finn’s raft drifting through a post-apocalypse American wasteland. Things have changed. The government has disappeared, geography itself seems to have been altered, somehow, technology doesn’t work, plague decimates the population, and bands of Goths and Scythians roam the landscape for plunder and mayhem.

In this case, Huck is a teen girl, Macy Palmer, fleeing St. Paul with her family for the faint, fleeting hope of safety on an island in the Gulf of Mexico. The novel is packed with action, mystery, and genuine suspense … to say nothing of an utterly fascinating (and deeply unsettling) new world. It’s a weird, wonderful, heart-breaking, and thought-provoking read. You’ll find surprising and laugh-out-loud humor, adventure, and, yes, even grounded, well-earned emotion. The result is an absolutely original and gripping read.

None of which, mind, is the real strength of the novel.

The comparison to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn goes deeper than the incidental detail of shared journeys down the Mississippi River. Ernest Hemmingway famously declared that all of American literature begins with Huckleberry Finn. Twain’s genius in Huckleberry Finn, undimmed even by the controversial ending, is his invention of an absolutely original character’s voice. Read any one line of Huck’s narration, and it’s utterly impossible to confuse him with, say, Natty Bumpo, Hester Prynne, or Hamlet. Huck is not an archetype or a stereotype. Huck’s voice, and his famous “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” declaration, make him a unique and fully realized individual. According to Hemmingway, at least, that focus on an individual voice was the birth of American literature, and what makes its tradition different from its European forefathers.

Macy Palmer is Huck Finn’s heir. The adventure, for all its gripping suspense and clever originality, isn’t what makes Total Oblivion, More or Less such a triumph. In Macy, Alan DeNiro has created a unique and compelling voice spoken by a compelling and all-too-real teen girl—one like the teens we all see at any Starbuck’s and every local mall. She is smart, clear-eyed, and mordantly sarcastic. She’s often petulant and resentful, but ultimately resilient and even heroic. Most of all, even when facing the loss of all she knows, she is intensely and acutely alive.

Maybe, as Hemmingway declares, the ending of Huckleberry Finn is faked. In the end Huck goes home again, full circle back to the starting point, and his monumental decisions and soul-deep changes don’t seem to matter much. Macy has no such luxury. There’s no going home for her, and the promises of safety are illusions. That makes her story heartbreaking and heroic, and offers us a unique and terrific read.

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Throw-back SciFi in “Deuces Wild: Beginners’ Luck” by L. S. King

Read Deuces Wild: Beginners’ Luck

First, a note of disclosure: the author is a friend of mine.

L. S. King’s novel Deuces Wild: Beginners’ Luck began life as a serial somewhere out there in the Interwebs on a site called Ray Gun Revival. Ray Gun Revival is an online pulp, if you will, offering throw-back stories inspired by the Golden Age of science fiction, when heroes faced forbidding planets and space monsters armed not with phasers or blasters, but with good, old-fashioned ray guns. Not surprisingly, the stories there aren’t exactly cutting edge. What they are is fun. Refreshingly so.

In Deuces Wild: Beginners’ Luck, a cowboy and a space pirate team up when both are threatened by gangsters, shadowy government types, and an insane emperor. That’s right. This is a story about a cowboy and a space pirate. How cool is that? Happily, the book lives up to all the unabashedly cliff-hanging, popcorn-eating, silly-grin-inducing fun of the premise.

The science is plausible — something rare in Golden Age throw backs — and the world-building is closer to Star Wars and Firefly than to the art deco-inspired environs of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. No worries. The heart and feel is the same. The roots show a bit. Since Deuces Wild: Beginners’ Luck started out as a serialized collection of stories, the plot is not as tight as most of us have come to expect from modern science fiction. Characters that seem like the may become important don’t reappear, and heavies that seem destined to become major threats are dispatched much sooner than one might expect. In fact, my one complaint is the lack of a villain strong enough to be a match for our heroes. There’s no Darth Vader to tie the episodes together.

None of that matters. Like the movie serials of yesteryear, when narrators used words like, um, yesteryear, the emphasis is on moving the characters from one wild adventure to the next.

More, the arc that makes Deuces Wild: Beginners’ Luck work is the at first reluctant friendship that grows between the two leads. Imagine what might have happened in Star Wars had Luke met Han in that bar without Obi Wan and some urgent mission. Imagine them slowing coming to respect, and even like each other and they drift planet to planet, constantly finding new trouble to get themselves out of. The growth of that friendship is what keeps you smiling in spite of yourself and turning the pages.

A few story threads are hinted at but not explored—they are, in fact, left tantalizingly open for a sequel. And that’s just fine, because something this much fun deserves to be continued.

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