Monster is as Monster Does

1995. The movie Species had just come out in theaters and there were a lot of problems with it. Let’s put aside the terrible science (as a friend of mine put it, “Breeding doesn’t work that way. After a few generations, the worst you’ll have is someone with the occasional tentacle…”). Let’s put aside the misogyny, the implicit fears of miscegenation, and the really terrible CGI at the end. My first question was the one I kept asking since I was a kid:

“Why is Sil the monster here? Why can’t she be the main character?”

Sil was designed by H.R. Giger and brought to life by Natasha Henstridge and Steve Johnson. And she was beautiful. As anyone who’s even glanced at my blog knows, I have a penchant for the biomechanoid look. This is the first time since the original Alien and Debbie Harry’s videos for Koo Koo that the aesthetic Giger created was properly translated to the screen.

But, of course, it’s brought in as a thing of evil. For someone who looked at the original Alien and started writing stories where the xenomorphs could talk, had a civilization, and were struggling with oppression. I had the same feelings for the Creature from the Black Lagoon (and I wasn’t the only one), and most werewolves as well.

The werewolves in particular – I love wolves, and studied their behavior. The more I got to know to know wolves, the more I realized they wouldn’t want to go hunting their loved ones in the dead of night. Packs are FAMILY organizations. They’d be more a threat to the local geese and rabbits than people. So why drove them to kill?

The human. The more I looked into it, the more I saw that for the most part, the human monsters were really the dangerous ones. They’re the ones creating bioweapons. They’re the ones making human-alien hybrids without asking, “So, is this really a responsible act?” They’re the ones invading quiet areas of the amazon with noisy boats. It’s the human that feels the power of the wolf and decides to act out, letting themselves loose.

Guess this is why I rarely liked vampires. They were too human. They acted in human ways.

For me, acts were what defined something as ‘monstrous.’ More importantly, the motivations behind those acts. There’s a difference between committing a monstrous act because there’s no choice and jumping right to that act as the default. The monsters are the company men who said, “We can write off the crew. We need the valuable IP the alien represents.” Or the epitome of 50’s male virility who uses his privilege to feed cruelty and bloodlust. Or the zealot who sees himself as right, powerful, and Gods voice in the world. “The missiles are flying. Hallelujah.”

This is where the line between horror and fantasy comes in. For most, the horror is this alien thing impinging itself on your comfortable reality. But the moment you treat the ‘monster’ with more care, it ceases to be a monster. It’s just an alien or extraplanar being to understand. Or, as one person put it, “How do you do? I’m the Doctor. Would you like a jelly baby?”

PS: As a final note, I think I’m not the only one who thought this way. Even starting with the original film, Sigourney Weaver herself said very, um, open-minded things about the sensual beauty of Giger’s creations.  I’ve seen more publicity photos of her cuddling with the alien than anything else. I think if someone pitched her on a romance film between her and a male version of Sil, she’d be all in.

 

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Our House, In The Middle of Our Street

Today, I’ll be discussing Madness.  Not the band, although they’re brilliant and you need to dig into their back catalog. No, I’m going to be talking about this madness called being a writer. I’m making a distinction between being a writer and being an author. An author is a writer who’s been published a significant number of times; usually enough to get the revenue service’s attention. No, this is for everyone from the biggest published author to the young girl who just saw The Dragon Prince on Netflix and had to write that Soren/Runaan story which popped into her head.

Here, I’m going to quote from two different sources. First, The Mary Sue’s review of the new period piece, Colette, about an icon of French literature.

 “[W]hat also connected with me was listening to how Colette talked about writing. It was a grueling process for her and while she loved it and felt compelled to do it, it was also emotionally draining and crushing at times. There is a part when she talks to another writer and asks if he likes writing and he responds: “God no, I do it to keep me from going mad.” That got me. That duel desire to create, but also hating the process of making that monster take form.”

The second is from Philip K. Dick:

“I’m an obsessive writer and if I don’t get writer’s block I’d overload, short circuit and blow my brain out right away.”

Both of these moments ring true. Not just the buzzing I get in the back of my teeth if I haven’t written in a while, or the way ideas will drift into your head when you’re trying to focus on a presentation for a client. Or you’ll see an open posting for an anthology and immediately hit on a story that would fit. The itch you can never scratch.

This is what a lot of folks don’t get about being a writer – any kind of writer. It doesn’t stop. Once you’ve gotten a taste, especially if you’ve gotten published at some point, it’s hard to give it up. You want keep going, no matter how frustrating it can be. And it is frustrating. And painful. And insane. And wonderful. And fun. So it is a kind of madness.

Do I want to be cured? No. It’s who I am. It’s written in me. If I didn’t do this:

 

 

Than I’d end up like this:

But in a permanent sort of way.

Having Trouble Finding the Holy Mountain

Today is a day of odd confluences. This morning, after waking up to another rejection, I turned to Twitter for a rant I was rather sure only one person would read. I’ve included an edited version below.

I remember hearing a podcast where JMS (of Babylon 5 & Sense8) told a story of being a young writer in a rut. After a few publications, none of his stories were being accepted. So, someone slipped him Harlan Ellison’s phone number. Not knowing any better, he called Harlan and got him on the phone. One section of the 45 minute call involved his writing. Ellison’s notes? “Well, you were writing OK, but now you’re writing shit. STOP WRITING SHIT.”

As I look upon another rejection, and also see where other folks I know are having success at submission, I think about that anecdote. And I ask myself. It just reminds me how few folks I have who can (or feel comfortable) assessing my shit. Most will say “Hey, that’s cool shit!” Which is great, but not helpful. When I look for new writing groups to help me with my shit, they tend to say “Sorry, we don’t do genre shit.”

Unfortunately, I can’t afford a professional shit analysis right now. And I know, everyone says, “Hey, don’t worry what everyone else thinks of your shit. Just keep working on making the best shit possible!” The problem with this advice is, well, how do I know I’m producing the best shit possible? Maybe I’m writing the wrong kind of shit? I honestly don’t know. I just know – this shit ain’t working. It’s getting sent back up the pipe.

Where’s a gastroenterologist/plumber when you need one? (Also, reminds me, need to collect stool samples from the cats before tomorrow’s vet visit…)

It was early in the morning, I admit. But, it seemed like a good thread. I woke up while writing it.  And then, the synchronicity hit. As I paged through my twitter feed, I also saw that today, Filmstruck announced it would be featuring the works of Alejandro Jodorowsky.  This included his lesser seen debut and his later biographic films, but the most important addition to this conversation is The Holy Mountain.

There is an infamous scene where a thief, who has ascended the tower of the Alchemist (played by Jodorowsky) receives a demonstration of the Alchemist’s power and ability. The thief takes a shit into a glass pot. The Alchemist puts it into a strange device, and dons kabbalistic garb. He forces the thief to sweat out his own impurities.

And then, mixing the elements together via the alchemical device, he sets about purifying the shit. We watch, over a series of shots, as the turds are converted into the most precious substance of all.

“You are excrement,” says the Alchemist. “But you can turn yourself into gold.”

Right now, I get the sense that my writing is excrement, but I don’t have the experience or knowledge to turn it into gold. And I’m unsure how to do so. There’s no red tower for me to climb. No surrealist at the top, waiting like to induct me into the great mysteries.

I’m alone on this road, looking for the holy mountain. And right now, I’m not sure if I’m constipated, have dysentery, or just a little too much corn in my diet. But my shit is not gold. Not yet.

***

Steps in the Ocean

One of the things I enjoyed about my former writer’s group was the 20 minute writing exercises which began every session. Now, to help get me going before working on the latest short story or novel project, I’ve started pulling writing up writing exercises based on images from Michael Whelan’s latest collection Beyond Science Fiction.

I’ve decided to share these exercises here. They’re the roughest of rough, but hopefully folks will enjoy them.

***

Steps to the Ocean
by Andrija Popovic (c) 2018
(Inspired by Michael Whelan’s painting “Passage: The Redstep“)

“This wasn’t meant for us. For humans.” Sidiel gazed up the stairs and through the great sea wall onto the rising sun. Each step, six inches tall but a good four feet wide, gradually rose from the eastern gate of the inner wall. The slope, so gentle it felt almost like walking up a ramp, gradually lifted the hundred or so star walkers into a polished, rectangular opening in the walls.

“This wasn’t meant as a stair, originally.” Ginnea walked beside her. Most of the stair climbers wore stretch robes, ungirded and lose enough to hide one’s identity. She supposed it was a supplication. The climb was a rite of faith for some. The sea was the great world eater, swallower of civilizations. We’re they seeking to be swallowed as well?

The two of them wore practical climbing sandals with good, firm grips. They wrapped their tunics up tight, keeping their legs clear and arms open so the sea wind could wick sweat away. The bandoleer bags over their shoulders, belted in the front, gave them quick access to food, water, and link panels. Ginnea read from one as they progressed.

“What was it, then?”

“Gear tracks.” She pointed up along the stairs. “Once, generations ago, there was a rolling lift here. It rode along the stairs and carried people back and forth between the inner and outer walls. Says it was dismantled when they needed parts to fix one of the pumping stations.”

“And this is all that’s left.” Sidel imagined the great, rumbling platform traversing the chasm between inner and outer walls, safely carrying passengers over the overflow moat and up to ferrocrete walls. Rough, undecorated ‘crete covered the sides facing the city. No attention was paid to aesthetics. So long as the walls held, the drains could drip rust and great streaks of calcium could leak down the blocks.

Yet the passage was smooth as glass. Sun reflected against the towering entrance. The stairs themselves were polished, likely by years of footsteps mirroring their own. Why keep the passage so neat? For the mechanism that once carried people up and down the stairs.

“Too many questions,” said Sidel. She took Ginnea’s hand in hers.

“Too much lost.” Ginnea stared up, gawking. “It has to be at least a hundred meters high. More.” She slung her link panel. “I should look it up.”

“Not yet. Just look.” Sidel remembered looking from the gallery stretched atop the inner sea wall and down on to the stairs. The climbers were ants on the smooth, glassy steps. So tiny against the reflections of the sun. Now they were the ants, just entering the polished opening to the sea. “Twenty steps left.”

“Twenty steps.” Hands clasped, they walked and counted, until they reached the last step and stood outside the city’s great defense against the rising sea.

Ginnea stumbled, and leaned against Sidel for support. Vast. The word did not mean anything until they looked out onto the ocean. From the waves lapping against the artificial tide pools, to the tiny white crests dotting deep waves in the distance, to the faint line of the horizon, they saw nothing but water.

“It’s so blue.” Sidel shook her head. “I always expected it to be darker. Greener.” She took Ginnea’s hand and walked from the stairs onto the shore of the first tide pool. All along the outer wall stretched a series of rectangular catch pools, about ten paces wide and thirty paces long. The pools were terraced; after the first set, another set were built several feet below the surface, followed by another, until the catchpools could no longer be seen.

“Support.” Ginnea peered into the pool. “The bottom of the wall facing the ocean gets thicker the deeper it goes. Mini-walls, stretching to the bottom of the ocean. On top of them, they put these tide pools. We must be at low tide. The ocean has only crested the second pool.” Around them, the walkers separated along the artificial shoreline. A few immediately began walking along the wall, following the weather-beaten concrete, one hand touching the wall itself.

Others walked to various pools and dropped their robes. Naked, they strode out along the pools, until the ocean crashed at their knees. A few sat, hands clasped in prayer while a brave handful dove right into the sea, swimming out past the pools to bob in the ocean like birds on the waves. Sidel glanced down into the pool. The water inside was still clear. Sea grasses clung to the bottom, fronds stretched upwards. A small, yellow fish darted between the grasses, searching for food.

“There’s life.” Sidel breathed in the ocean winds. The salt tasted wonderful; it tickled her nose.

“Yes.” Ginnea raised her link panel, snapping photos of the horizon, the pools, and Sidel. “So, I heard there are cities out there. Floating cities. They follow great schools of fish along the ocean currents, and dive the shores for supplies. They catch fleets occasionally run into their cutters.” Ginnea tucked her panel away. “I wonder what it would be like living there.”

“I’d be curious…” Sidel unsealed her sandals and hissed as her bare feet touched the polished ‘crete. She didn’t expect it to be so cool, despite the direct sun. “Shall we?”

“Just a bit.” Ginnea undid her sandals and tied them to her bandoleer. “To see how the water is.”

“Right. Just to see how the water is.” They sat down, together, beside one of the pools and dipped their feet into the water. It was cold, at first. Colder than the stones. The grasses tickled them. Sidel meeped when a fish darted up and nibbled at a callous on her toe. Ginnea laughed, until her own toes were being tended by little fish.

They sat together, watching the sun rise, letting their legs touch under the waves. Ginnea rested her head on Sidel’s shoulder, and Sidel hugged Ginneas waist. Around them, the ocean sang.

“Shall we go in?” Sidel was already undoing her tunic and bandoleer.

“Yes.” Ginnea skinned out of her clothes. Together, they counted: “Three. Two. One” and dove into the infinite sea.

In the Heat, All Reet

August is upon the DC Metro area. For those unfamiliar with this time of year, it’s when you can switch between your local weather forecast, and that of Baton Rouge, LA, and not see that much of a difference. Storms roll in with frequency and ferocity. The humidity is almost drinkable. Energy levels drop. Most, who can, try to escape the area for a location with an ocean, or a pool, or some other form of weather which doesn’t resemble a pot of water slowly coming up to a boil.

My cat, Tellus, tends to reflect my moods on these days. Unlike Adia, who has manic moments that annoy the heck out of us, Tellus has a few basic mood settings:

(1) Food? Girl? – This is when he’s most active. If food is involved, he leaps to action, rushing downstairs to catch the auto-feeder. And, if one of the girls is in the kitchen, or lounging in the dining area, he’s right there. He sits at the edge of his invisible fence line, watching, mewing piteously for some attention.

(2) Sunbeam. Sleep. – On high heat afternoons, or winter afternoons, he will curl himself up on a low box we have on the floor and rest. Sometimes, Adia will cram in there with him. It’s rarely a state of activity. It’s a recharge point.

(3) Hey. What’s up? – This is his relatively normal state. He’ll wander around, bumping against someone seated on the couch, looking for petting. It may charge into “Hey! What’s that?!” if he’s excited enough. He’ll chase after his favorite toys, gnaw and gnash at them, before coming back for pettings or to just sit atop one of the couch pillows. For him, that’s a big way he just stays part of the action.

(4) You don’t see me. Go away. – He hides under the coffee table, where we keep the blankets. Or, under the couch. Or anywhere he can. Sometimes, he will hide away when he’s not feeling sociable. Other times, it’s because the doorbell rang and he hates people.

And lastly: (5) Oh. Hey. It’s you. – this can be mistaken for “Hey. What’s up?” but there’s a tinge of melancholy.  He won’t move for the doorbell. He won’t move for the ball. When food appears, he doesn’t react. Physical symptoms only happen once or twice. They have to be registered with care. But most of the time he’s just there. Existing. In the August heat, all reet.

Author, Dreamweaver, Visionary – Me?

This image, this entry title, and the dramatic music you suddenly hear playing in the background means one thing: Chuck Wendig’s Awkward Author Photo Contest is coming to a close.  First, congratulations to the winner for an amazing, haunting, eye-popping photo. Second, yes, you can still vote if you want to help decide who’s in 2nd place. Don’t feel the need to vote for me. I’ve been honored enough by Chuck recognizing me from my past entry (now proudly featured on this blog) and using the photo as an example for the original announcement.

This year’s batch (and you can see variations of the photo by clicking on the picture) were inspired by Garth Marenghi. My friend Charles helped mock-up the cover using real artwork from a real book, which was turned into a lovely prop. My hand, alas, covers the tagline “They come to defile our WOMEN!”

Between this shoot and the family trip around the Baltic, I’ve gotten a chance to take photographs again. Forgot how much I missed it until I was grabbing pictures once again, or sitting down in front of Lightroom trying to get just the right feel out of the camera raw.  My only regret is not looking strange enough here. Or Doctor Strange, as my wife likes to point out while making sure everyone can see the silver in my temples.

While doing the shoot, I did think about the character of Garth Marenghi. If you’ve seen the series Darkplace (on YouTube, by the by) or any of the stage plays, you can tell that this man is both insanely egotistical and extremely insecure at the same time. His relentless drive for self promotion is coupled with an intense defensiveness about the quality of his work.  This is a man who, after publishing a book like The Stabbening on a press no one heard of run by a friend of his as a tax dodge, would immediately go to the largest SF conventions and demand a place on their panels.

He’d then shamelessly promote his own books, dominate the panels, be horrible to anyone there, amazingly sexist to any women on the panel and probably say something disparaging about “The Scotch People.”  But I bet he’d get invited back once his new book Hippie Snowflake Revolution hit the shelves. (All hail Richard Kadrey’s brilliant cover, by the by.)

Hate to admit it, I need a bit more Garth in me…

Walls, Drones, and Dreams – Sleep Dealer

Recent events, involving our government’s horrific treatment of families seeking asylum from terror and death in Central America and the placement of children in privately run detention facilities, have made it difficult to do anything but post angry faces on social media, donate to folks willing to help, protest,  and circulate articles about how our borders have become a proxy for the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Running right against this reality was the unreality of the E3 conference, and the release of the Cyberpunk 2077 trailer. When I saw that, my first thought was “Wow. This was the corporate run cyberpunk dystopia we were promised when I was growing up.” The retro-ness of the game had an appeal. I can understand, though, why folk didn’t like it. It’s the way we thought things would be.

Here’s the thing: we are nostalgic for a more obvious, flashy, and stylistic world like that of Night City 2077 because it’s easier for us to get a grip on than the current cyberpunk dystopia we live in. Today, we can’t blame our lack of empathy on too many mods. It’s a constant drumbeat from the administration and their corporate backers, talking about the folks who lived south of the boarder as if they are parasites coming to infest America. As if they are not human.

What happens if it advances, though? If we do get the ‘Murica so many want?

Well, director and writer Alex Rivera crafted a vision of that future back in 2008. A while back, I wrote that we need the punk in cyberpunk now more than ever. We need the questioning of authority. We need cyberpunk’s storytelling to show how this path we’ve chosen can lead us down a very dark road.

Rivera showed the way in his story about life on the other side of a fortified, militarized US-Mexico border. Not only does it ask questions about technology – how it can liberate and enslave us – but also about how we’ve created an illusion about what goes into making America great again, and who does the actual building.

It’s a film called Sleep Dealer.

Memo Cruz lives on a family subsistence farm in Santa Ana Del Rio. During the day, he and his family try and keep the crops growing. He walks with his father to the fortified dam blocking the river water from flowing from the US to Mexico, where they have to pay for every drop they get for their farm. Cash goes into a scanner slot. Water comes out. Everything is commoditized.

When not working, Memo dreams of reaching out to the wider world. He taps into communications systems and listens in from far off places, including the land where dreams come true: The US. Unfortunately, his attempts at outreach get mistaken for hijacking attempts by ecoterrorists. When he, his brother, and his mother are out shopping they see a live edition of “DRONES” – a US program where ‘node pilots’ jack into drones and “blow the Hell out of the bad guys.”

In this case, the drone pilot destroys memo’s house, and kills his father.

Now lacking their dad’s income, Memo heads to Tijuana for work. There he meets Luz, who’s using her cybernetic implants (nodes) to try to sell stories and experiences on the web. She acts as a guide to the node worker community, gets Memo his first set of jacks, and tells him about the sleep dealers.

Sleep dealers are node work factories. There, hundreds of workers jack in and pilot remote construction drones in the US. The node workers provide cheap labor, building the American dream while being forever blockaded from it. In the US, all everyone sees are machines building new skyscrapers or laying new roads. But behind those machines working night and day, there’s a node worker in a Tijuana factory, pumping his nervous system dry.

They work until they collapse. That’s why the factories are called Sleep Dealers.

Meanwhile, in the US, someone is looking into the person whose father was killed by the drone strike – buying his stories via Luz…

I don’t want to give more away. I want folks to experience this film. It’s available on DVD and BluRay. You can also rent it on iTunes and Amazon. Then, tell two other people about the movie, and encourage them to get it as well. It does what good cyberpunk should do – question the status quo. It forces us to think about the people we ask to build our American dream, but refuse to give a part of it. It makes us think about the promises of the US, and who gets to redeem those promises, and at what cost.

And it’s not glossy. There are no pink mohawks. No combat cabs. No Blade Runner cityscapes. It’s all on the ground, and very close to home. If you want to see the cyberpunk dystopia we were promised, and fondly remember, watch the CP 2077 trailer again.

If you want to see the cyberpunk dystopia we’re getting, watch Sleep Dealer.