In the Heat of the Sun: Desert Noir

Film noir. Two words which conjure images of unshaven men in fedoras, dangerous women in evening dresses, rain-slicked back alleys in America’s cities, and… prospectors in California mining towns?

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And yet, I’m starting to find the arid lands outside of the great noir settings hold just as many people making bad decisions in a desperate attempt to escape their circumstances.

Every Sunday morning at 10am Eastern, I visit Noir Alley.  Hosted by Eddie Muller – a man who earned the title “The Czar of Noir” with his work in the Film Noir Foundation – I watch our host lead us through classic films of the era. And while I’ve seen my share of bank jobs gone wrong, or loves turn to murder (and tweeted along to them on #NoirAlley), I was surprised by one location which kept appearing: the desert, and the mountains.

Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino’s High Sierra is a famous example. This early noir ended in the desert town of Lone Pine, California, with a sharpshooter taking down Bogart after a tense stand on the rough mountains. But as films went on, the desert became more and more prominent.

In Framed, Glen Ford’s follow-up to Gilda, Ford plays a mining engineer looking to start anew. He finds an old prospector, a chance at a good job, and a James M. Cain style murder plot all under the glaring sun.  The end of The Prowler, a dark little film staring Van Heflin and Evelyn Keys and written (in pseudonym) by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, ends with the larcenous pair trapped in a ghost town where their adulterous desires will meet a brutal end.

And then there is Split Second. On the surface, this is a hostage drama with escaped convicts. But instead of an urban home, everyone is in an abandoned resort town in the desert under a ticking clock. In this case, an above-ground atom bomb test.  This is the first time I’ve ever seen someone get their (film production code mandated) bad end through a nuclear detonation.

But even through other films, the desert shows up. Las Vegas becomes a setting in many places. A good number of chase scenes take place out away from the city. I know it’s likely just because it’s cheaper to film out there, yet I think here’s something more.

Take Ida Lupino‘s brilliant film, The Hitch-Hiker. Without the desolate beauty of Baja California, would the main character’s plight as hostages of the high-hiker been half as tense? In the desert, you can run anywhere, and still have nowhere to go, and no safe place to escape.

Think about this the next time you’re heading down a dark road in the middle of the desert, no companions but scrub brush, coyotes, and a strange man who asks you: “Got a light?”

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Babooshka & Delirium’s Mistress at Tea

Often, when I write, it’s downstairs on the couch. Usually there’s a cat attempting to knock my iPad out of its Qwertkey keyboard. Often there’s sun spilling through the blinds. But always there’s something playing on YouTube. Usually, it’s music. Today, it was about music. I threw on a 2014 BBC documentary on Kate Bush as I wrote up notes on various possible stories and novels. And as I listened to Kate Bush’s songs, and watched her videos, a notion hit me.

I posted this on Twitter: “In my imaginary world, Kate Bush and Tanith Lee used to spend afternoons together, laughing, and telling each other stories based on dreams.”

And I could see it. I could see the two of them in a small house somewhere – either Lee’s residence or Kate Bush’s Wickham Farm home studio. Kate would be working on Hounds of Love, singing bits and pieces of it, toying with a piano or keyboard. Tanith would be writing everything longhand, as if possessed, and reading early drafts of Delirium’s Mistress or “Medra” from a battered and cluttered writing desk.

Why these two? In some ways, I’ve always tied them together. The first time I heard Kate Bush sing, it was “Love & Anger” from The Sensual World.  Around that same time, the first of Tanith’s books – the Flat Earth Series – found their way into my hands. The back of my brain connected their voices.

But watching the documentary on Bush, and thinking back to ReaderCon discussions about Lee, I realized they were kin to each other. They were strange and sensual voices in a time plagued by sameness. No one could ever read one of Tanith Lee’s novels or listen to Kate Bush’s songs and say, “Well, it’s obvious they’re just riffing off this artist…” You can’t draw a direct line from their works to some antecedent.

They would always surprise you. They’d go down their own path and invite you along for the ride.

After all, these are ladies who would describe snow as ‘hooded-wept’ and ‘warm as toast.’ How could they not share garden space in the neighborhood of my mind?

We Can Be Heroes

They say you should never meet your heroes. You will realize they have feet of clay, lecherous hands, and spiteful mouths. Let them remain a shadow in the back of your mind. The Platonic idea of your hero will always beat the real thing.

In this case, I’m glad I didn’t listen. Over ten years ago, I went to GenCon with three close friends. We were there to support our favorite mini game at the time. And I realized that Michael Stackpole, fantasy and tie-in fiction author I admired for years, was not only attending but presenting  a multi-day workshop on writing. At the time, I dabbled and tried get a few things published – mostly to see if it would impress folks who really didn’t deserve the attention.

Michael Stackpole changed all of this.

I met him through the Battletech tie-in books. The Warrior trilogy in particular grabbed me by my little mech-powered heart over many a summer when I was young. His Rogue Squadron books influenced some of my favorite sessions of the old West End Games Star Wars RPG. And I will say his fantasy novel, The Dark Glory War, still haunts me.

And I mean it. The ending haunts me. The protagonist lives, but gods, you wish he had death’s peace.

So, I was concerned about the seminars. Would he grab the novella I had tucked in my backpack and set it afire in front of everyone, as I heard some Clarion instructors were wont to do?

No. He was open, forthright, friendly, and smart. His lectures completely turned me around. While they are currently trunk novels, it’s because of him I have three completed books hidden away.  He gave me just the right push, at just the right time, to start acting like  writer. Later, when his 21 Days to a Novel came out, I used it as a blueprint for one of my projects. Michael Stackpole still had a lot to teach me.

I returned to GenCon this year with three publication credits to my name – not much, but a start – and ran into Mr. Stackpole at the Catalyst Games booth. Not only did he put up with my stammering, he graciously signed my autograph book with two words: “Keep writing.”

No worries, sir. I will. Damn right I will.

Tellus, my Cirni Macak

Normally, I don’t post life or pet related items here. But sometimes the need to write overrides the need to remain on theme. And, in a way, this is about my writing.

Meet Tellus:

 

He is a six plus year old black cat. And I named him after one of the characters in my on-hold novel, Ivre. But he’s been having a rough go of things lately. Last week, due to a blockage in his urinary tract, he was hours away from death. He’s spent the last week in and out of hospital care and, on Sunday, had surgery to deal with the blockage and try to prevent it from happening again.

His recovery has been slow. He’s not eating beyond a few bits of canard et pois pill pocket (his favorite) and a few treats. But he has been recovering his demeanor. Tellus was affectionate, demanding attention for the time we get to spend with him, but he tuckered out easily. We are hoping we can take him home tomorrow night and I can telecommute on Thursday to watch over him.

Growing up, all I ever wanted was a cat. A black one in specific. My aunt Ruzica called me cirni macak all the time. Black cat. My first cat, Emma, was a black cat. She was also pretty feral, sporting a birdshot under her skin and a kill count that included two squirrels, dozens of chipmunks, and at least one raven. Small wonder she wandered off and never came back.

Adia and Tellus were rescued from under a friend’s brother’s deck. He was a paranoid, antisocial little ball of fuzz:

 

And I loved him instantly. Now, I’m hoping to get him back the way he was and, when he hides under the coffee table among the blankets stored there, it will be for positive reasons.

Be well soon, cirni macak.

Bad Decisions Make Good Stories

I’ve seen this on a t-shirt in a few different places. It’s supposed to be some kind of devil-may-care, “I’m try-sexual – I’ll try anything” type of declaration. But I saw it worn by the co-author of Hard Case Crime’s brilliant comic, Peepland.  And it might as well be the thesis for film noir, and their pulp crime antecedents.

It’s also a good guideline for compelling stories, and the hardest one to follow. At least, for me.

But, film noir first. The last few months, every unoccupied Sunday morning, I join Eddie Muller and a gaggle of folks on Twitter for Turner Classic Movie’s Noir Alley.  At 10am Eastern, you can follow #NoirAlley and join a conversation about that morning’s selection.  Yes, they do have well known entries, like The Maltese Falcon (the debut) but they also show off lesser known, but equally deserving entries like the boxing tale The Set-Up featuring one of Robert Ryan’s best performances. I’m still waiting for a chance to see Woman on the Run again – a lost classic starring Ann Sheridan as a wife searching for her estranged husband after he’s witnessed a gangland hit – but there are a large number of interesting films to explore.

Noir Alley was an offshoot of TCM’s “Summer of Darkness” where, for Friday nights in August it was nothing but noir all the time.  An evening of desperate people making rough choices and exposing the dark underbelly of the American dream.  Hearing Eddie Muller’s insights before and after each feature exposed how much of the film noir movement grew organically from the American crime fiction and an onrush of talent escaping the shadow of fascism in Europe.  No one declared a movement until well after the ‘golden years’ of film noir ended.

Defining film noir always started with the aesthetics, but in truth, it was the story and the characters: deeply flawed, often villainous protagonists making bad decisions in their attempt to get what they want.  Many look at the Bogart detective dramas as the template for noir, but I look at Double Indemnity and it’s overlooked counterpart (and feature on this week’s edition of Noir Alley), The Prowler.  Both feature hungry individuals looking for ways out of their stifling lives.

Desperate measures lead to bad decisions. And bad decisions make great stories.

They rarely make for happy endings, though. At least, if you’re following the template of noir fiction. Or, the endings are never bright shiny ones. Let’s take “The Set-Up” for example. The happy ending involves a man having his hands broken and shattered for not falling down and being a terrible boxer, like everyone expected of him. It saves his marriage, and probably his life, but there’s a cost.

Bad decision lead to bad ends. No good deed goes unpunished, and the bad ones often end with you getting gunned down in the desert.  It’s not the best and most hopeful way of seeing the world.  To quote Greg Stoltze’s noir RPG game, it’s A Dirty World. Everything comes at a cost.

Which means adhering to the “Bad decisions lead to good stories” tenant when you’re suffering depression is a very difficult thing to do.  Despite everything you hear, no one ever does their best work when hungry, depressed, strung-out, or miserable. No one wants to write about grim situations and desperate individuals caught in traps of their own making when they’re clinging onto their anti-anxiety meds for a reason not to go back to cutting.

But their are other stories you can tell.

I know many folks deride ‘cozy’ mysteries. And I’m not to fond of them myself in some ways. But one can write mysteries, or stories exploring the dark, where the dark doesn’t consume everything.  The late P.D. James is a perfect example of this balance. She is not a shy lady when it comes to the dark side. She spends the first act of her Adam Dalgliesh books describing the deep flaws and dark desires of her soon-to-be suspects. And when the detective-poet delves into the lives surrounding the crime, darker secrets come to night.

But P.D. James offers the reader something noir doesn’t – a light at the end of the tunnel that isn’t an oncoming train. For all the darkness she finds, at the end of the book, justice exists.  The killer will be found. And while not everyone is innocent, the truly guilty will be found and punished.  Bad decisions may lead to good stories – but they don’t have to be the protagonist’s bad decisions.  And I don’t have to write about them if I’m not in the best place to do so. There are other ways.

So every free Sunday at 10, I’ll settle with TCM and Eddie Muller and #NoirAlley. I’ll see how bad decisions can lead to good stories. But I will also curl up with P. D. James as well. I’ll find different kinds of stories, different kinds of comfort, and know when I can’t write one because it hits too close to home, the other is there for me.

Now both stories will still be shot by John Alton – but that’s another discussion.

Loyalty is a Flaw

I grew up watching Airwolf like a lot of other kids. Either on NBC, or later on syndication on Channel 20. There were a lot of episodes I gravitated towards. But one in particular still sticks with me: “Severance Pay.”

The plot focuses on Larry, an operative and analyst with the FIRM (Airwolf’s CIA stand-in). The day of his retirement, he discovers there may be a mole in the FIRM and dutifully reports it, as he’s done for 20 years. Imagine Robert Redford’s character from 3 Days of the Condor if he’d had an uneventful career. He and his partner, Joe, go to get their retirement checks and bonuses from the pension office. But, the FIRM still has them classified as ‘temporary’ workers. They are due no retirement bonuses. Worse yet, Joe has a heart attack at the pension office and dies in Larry’s arms. We later learn it Joe’s widow isn’t getting anything from his death: as far as the FIRM is concerned, they received medical benefits they were not entitled to and need to reimburse their former employers. No dignity, even in death.

Larry does what any reader would do: he goes to war against the FIRM. The plot escalates and involves the mole, and a termination order. But the part that always stuck with me was the questions of loyalty, and hard work, and how in the end it got them nothing. That’s what sticks with me.

The stories we tell about work, about how it’s supposed to make us feel, about what we expect from it in the end, say a lot about who we are and what we hope for in the US.

While it’s aimed at a cold, unfeeling bureaucracy I honestly see “Severance Pay” applying to corporate thinking, especially in the days since the philosophy of “Shareholder Profits Above All” took root in America. Employees are not assets, valued and given fair treatment for their work. They’re used and disposed of, with no reward for the uncounted hours spent on its behalf. One good visit from a ‘management consultant firm’ and suddenly, your experience and knowledge base is gone. The American Dream was, from what I understood, the fact you could find a good job you enjoyed, work hard, get due promotions, and then be able to retire with comfort, knowing you’ve earned it.

The American reality is very different. A worker is a liability. You have to pay them a salary, give them benefits, and the longer they stay, the harder it is to give them less and less. When a company needs to make profit expectations but sales are not up, people go. Overhead, cut from the bottom line. Then, of course, the pension funds are raided for more money back. Everyone is asked to do more with less. People start working multiple functions and when their work degrades, they get fired. More money back for the company. By any means necessary, the quarterly numbers must be met.

Before you think the non-profit world is any better, talk to someone who worked there. “Non-profit slave” is bandied about quite a bit. You’re asked to give up so much time and effort for no pay to help the cause. “We work until the work is done.” And never mind the consequences. It can create an atmosphere where people break themselves. I wonder how many non-profits run on the backs of people who don’t realize they’re being under-rewarded for their work.

In the US, we turn work into another kind of faith, thanks in part to the Puritans and their beliefs. Work and success are signs of divine grace. If one is poor, or sick, or mentally ill, it is the Lord casting down judgement on their sins. This flows into the prosperity gospel, which John Oliver took on. Success means god loves you. Only the wealthy will enter into heaven. So if you aren’t doing well – if you are not succeeding at your job – it’s your fault. It’s a character flaw. It’s inherent sin. Never mind you may not like, or be suited for the job you’ve been thrust into. Never mind your career progression path has been so chopped up you’re not sure where you’re going. You, and only you, are responsible for your success or failure. No one is ever set up to fail. And those who have grasped success, they deserve admiration, no matter how they did it.

Chuck Wending wrote an amazing Twitter/Storify essay on his father, and how he related to the bosses in his business. I really encourage you to read it, because it captures how the narrative of the American work ethic, and the truth of how American capitalism and ‘merit’ work run in stark contrast. It also shows that when the narrative we’re fed as children does not turn out they way we wish, it’s easy to push the anger on others. And not on management.

These narratives make it easy to blame workers for terrible working conditions, workers in other countries for lost jobs, and anyone but folks who actually make these conditions. When, for example, a new manager comes in and begins assigning people to jobs they are not trained or suited for, and they don’t do well – it’s obviously the worker’s fault. After all, if they were good hard workers they would be successful.

When workers are laid off in favor of technology – it’s not the corporate managers who decided they were not getting a good RoI by giving folks a living wage. It’s foreigners. It’s the workers who asked for too much, like health care or the ability to work with pride. They asked for too much. They could not compete. If only those workers had gone into real jobs, gotten business degrees or… you get the picture. These narratives enable exploitation, and more.

So, how do we change things?

We need to change the narrative. We need to tell different stories. Maybe ones where we don’t value wealth over humanity? Or maybe stories about people finding jobs they’re good at, and being allowed to work there and improve, without having to jump to another position they hate. Is the idea of being paid well for a job you love so strange?

On the same day I re-watched “Severance Pay” I also saw the film Your Name. At the very end one of the protagonists, Taki, is job hunting. In the interviews, he explains he wants to be an architect because he wants to create places in Tokyo which bring warmth and good memories to people. And as I watched, I hope he would find a good place that let him do just that, and appreciated what he wanted to create.

I’d like to see a story where someone, in the modern world, finds a job that they can appreciate, and can appreciate them. But maybe that’s why we call it the American Dream –  we have to wake up at the end and face reality where the workers we admire, the ones we put in our highest office, are these guys:

 

This Was Not the Corporate Dystopia I Was Promised

The other title for this post is “We Need The Punk In Cyberpunk Now.”

Recent events has me thinking on a big influence on my formative years: the literature and the aesthetic of cyberpunk. While many grew up with images of the space age, with (white, western) humanity cementing its manifest destiny among the stars, I grew up when a certain generation of authors looked at the great space wheel of 2001: A Space Odyssey and wondered how many of the components were built by globalized companies using third world labor.

This was a world were the buds of the modern internet first took root when we started connecting home computers into telephone lines, then immediately used it to trade porn and complain about movies. Cell phones first hinted at the idea we wouldn’t be tied to cables and trunk-lines forever. And corporations grew, adopting a “Shareholder Profits Shall Be the Whole of the Law” attitude which still rules today. Conversations like the one ceased to be dialog out of Alan J. Pakula thrillers:

“We can make tones of money using these quick-term stock scams and hiding the results overseas. Now it’ll crash the economy-”
“What about the quarterly profits?”
“Oh, we’ll see a massive spike before total devastation.”
“We can blame the immigrants. Do it, and we’ll be rich enough to not care.”

And instead became standard operating procedure for every global company out there.

Take all of the above, mingle onto it the visual aesthetics of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the paintings of Patrick Nagel, and Michael Mann’s visual palette from Miami Vice, and you have the birth of a neon-drenched corporate dystopia where the wealthy live in technological splendor, while the same technology alternately imprisons and liberates those scrambling to survive day in, day out. The tools of the oppressors became ways we could give them a massive “Fuck You.”

But while we have cyberpunk’s technology for the most part (No wicked cybernetics, but re-read Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net. The book opens with someone killed by a drone strike, folks), and we certainly have the ever-present corporate domination (Get and watch the Max Headroom collection from Shout Factory. Check “Grossberg’s Return” for the shocking idea of the media creating news, not reporting it –  *cough*InfoWars*cough* – while “Lessons” talks explicitly about education treated as a commodity to keep it out of the hands of the poor), we are missing some things.

The aesthetics for one. I think Starcadian best expresses this longing for a familiar vibe in the video for “Chinatown”

The other part we’ve lost – and some would argue never really had – was the punk part. That rebellious growl at seeing our future stolen, at dehumanization, and at the abuse of power. The part of the aesthetic born from folks like Stiff Little Fingers. Listen to “Suspect Device

They take away our freedom
In the name of liberty
Why can’t they all just clear off
Why can’t they let us be
They make us feel indebted
For saving us from hell
And then they put us through it
It’s time the bastards fell

Don’t believe them
Don’t believe them
Don’t be bitten twice
You gotta suss, suss, suss, suss, suss, suss
Suss, suspect device

Tell me that’s not the punk part of the equation in a song?

This is what we need in the world right now. We need the punk side of cyberpunk. We need our Suspect Devices. We need our Edison Carters, though these days he’d be working for ProPublica, not Network 23.  It’s out there, but right now it’s controlled by people who think swatting a lady for not appreciating the dick picks you sent her after seeing her Steam profile. We need to take it back. We need to use what we learned from our CyberPunk forefathers to take this world and cast it into ugly, sharp relief. We need to channel the growling anger of punk and it’s children, and focus it on the folks who’d take away our freedoms in the name of liberty.

When I see an article posted about how our new administration is taking pages out of Totalitarianism 101 (Say, by de-legitimizing a free press or picking targets for ‘true patriots’ to rail against), I don’t react with a sad face. I use the angry one. And I tell them exactly how they can fight – Maybe not with their fists, but with dollars, votes, and showing up at a town hall meeting with a ZIP code on your chest while getting into a legislator’s grill.

I think anyone writing contemporary SF who felt something shiver inside when they watched the opening minutes of Blade Runner, saw Synners spelled in a unique way, or heard the sky described as television tuned to a dead channel, should do the same.  Or as Henry Rollins put it:

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So, borrowing from Joe’s bandmate, Paul – when they kick down your front door, how you gonna come? With your hands on your head? Or on the record button of your cell phone, streaming live and direct to the world?

It’s cyberpunk time.