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.

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.

Oh, The Horror. The Horror….

Oh, The Horror. The Horror.

I love horror fiction, and films. The weirder, the better. But, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to successfully write it. I’ll explain why after this gloomy self-portrait of Sir William Fettes Douglas:

If there was a philosophy to my early childhood, it’s this: “The world is dark and full of terrors.” (Apologies to George R.R. Martin.) I remember growing up in terror of the world, both outside the house (Stranger danger! Don’t run out into the street! Don’t go into that old shed! Don’t play on that tire, you’ll get tetanus!) and inside the house. My family wore feelings like flags. If someone was angry, the entire house knew it. You couldn’t deaden the yelling. It was like living in an emotional bombing zone at the best of times.

Later in life, I realized how lucky I was that this was the extent of my traumas, but that’s another topic.

Fear ruled my life. Some would say it still does but then, my fears were more tangible. They dug into everything I did: I wouldn’t see a movie, because I heard there was a scary part in it. I wouldn’t listen to a record because I heard it drove people to suicide. The constant protective fear I experienced left my emotional skin very thin. I had to thicken it up myself.

I did it with repeated listening of the story record for The Black Hole, with its gurgling audio of Anthony Perkins’ death at the spinning blades of Maximilian, the single most terrifying robot I’ve ever seen.  The pictures of his scowling red eyeslit combined with one of the nastiest deaths in a supposed ‘space adventure’ burned into my brain.

I went through a wilderness of knives with Young Sherlock Holmes and the sacrifice of the young girl, smothered alive by hot wax in a pseudo-Egyptian ceremony. (At that age, I could actually feel the claustrophobia and suffocation she must have experienced). And in my dreams, I fought off the horrifying painting of one of my ancestors which stood in the house, glaring at us with his wire-brush beard and dark Serbian eyes. It made the portrait above look positively cheerful.

Over time, though, the fears of the dark and  what lurked inside faded. I grew to love the fictional horrors out there. I’d dive into films, and books. Junior high was my first deep dive into terrors, as I found Hauntings: Tales of the Supernatural edited by Henry Mazzeo with illustrations by Edward Gorey in the Thomwas W. Pyle Jr. High library. The fictional terrors comforted me. Outside the library were real horrors, ones encountered at a young age and kept encountering all my life.

When going to school terrifies you because of the people waiting there, and going home is just as terrifying because of the people waiting there, what’s in a book becomes comforting. Now that I’m entirely too grown, fictional terrors on TV, the big screen, and in literature are a cozy blanket and warm cup of tea for me. I taste terrors the way some taste wine: enjoying the complexities, but never losing myself to the alcohol.

Why? Because every day, at work, I face a monitor which runs CNN constantly. I listen to political feeds, hear twitter conversations, read about the worst parts of humanity. I’ve lived through seeing both sides of my family go from obscure countries no one cared about to shorthands for mass murderers and despots. In my world, when someone racks up a body count which rivals any hockey-masked golem, the first response is: “How can we capitalize on this? Quick, send out a press release blaming the welfare state.”

I’m convinced that, in this world, the horrors of literature would be drowned in the banal horrors of humanity. A dark cosmic void pointing to our insignificance is actually far more inspiring and magnificent than a distant board of executives who consider me just another liability which can be ditched if we don’t make our annual profit margins. At least alien biomechanoids consider me a valuable resource on one level…

John Carpenter said once there are fundamentally two types of horror: external or internal. Internal horror is about confronting the darkness within ourselves – our actions have led to a horrific consequence. External horror features a malevolent force attacking us and all we hold dear. But both start one deep assumption: there is some value in the status quo. It may suck, but at least you’re not being assaulted by undead creatures or your dad isn’t possessed by some entity out to kill you. Right?

I don’t think so. Horror gives us an enemy. You can focus on the terrifying thing caught in a home movie. You can try to defeat it. How do you defeat the fact your neighborhood was red-lined into persistent poverty?

True horror is a private security firm’s attack dog with its teeth red from the blood of anti-pipeline protesters. True horror is an athlete caught raping an unconscious woman, let go after three months because he’s a white kid from the right school, with a sympathetic judge. True horror is a neighborhood dying from toxins in the soil and water because they’re too poor to register on anyone’s political radar.

This is why I can’t write horror myself. Because I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write anything as terrifying as humanity at its worst.

This Is Not My Future: Gundam Unicorn & Generational Conflicts

For those who didn’t shell out to get the blue-ray OAV releases, Bandai is broadcasting a re-edit of Gundam Unicorn. Mecha addict that I am, even though I’ve seen it before, I’ve been re-watching the series and it’s and finding more depth to it the second time around.

First, the opening theme as a spoiler break:

It’s really rare you open a series with a song trying to convince someone not to keep harming themselves. But in a way, Unicorn Gundam or UC as I’ll call it is the perfect vehicle for this song. Because the entire series is about wounds – old and new, inflicted and self-inflicted – and trying to grow beyond the pain into something better.

First, you’ll want to read up a little on the Unversal Century timeline in Gundam. You can check out wikipedia for some starting points, but ther eis also an amazing timeline here.

The key places to look are the main series (Mobile Suit Gundam, Zeta Gundam, ZZ Gundam, Char’s Counterattack) and the OAV’s 0083 Stardust Memory (which bridges Gundam and Zeta Gundam) & the ongoing Gundam: The Origin. For those in a reading mood, Gundam: The Origin is a beautiful manga retelling of the first series and I really recommend it. The Gundam Unicorn appears at the end of this timeline, 17 years after the start of the first series in Universal Century 0096.

What was to be the start of man’s glorious new future in space has, instead, been a century of war and horrors: environmental damage on Earth lead to forced migration of poor populations to space. A terrorist attack on the Earth Federation’s prime minister created a totalitarian atmosphere over the Earth sphere. Conflicts bloomed between those who remained on Earth (Earthnoids) and those who lived in space(Spacenoids). Exploitation, colonialism, nationalism and greed dominate humankind.

Even the idea of a “new type” of humanity, adapted to space and able to use psi gifts to communicate and increase understanding, is twisted by the rulers of the Dutchy of Zeon into an ubermench style philosophy. Political tensions come to a head in 0079, when the One Year War begins between the forces of Zeon (ostensibly representing spacenoid independence movements) and the Earth Federation.

The One Year War sees the death of billions. Even the hippiesh idea of a “NewType” is turned into a weapon of war, where pilots with these gifts are pitted against each other at the behest of their superiors. The series that follow deal with the aftershocks – entrenchment and pro-Earth fascism (0083 and Zeta), resurgences of Zeon by remnant forces (ZZ Gundam and Char’s Counterattack). Throughout it all, colonies are destroied or dropped on earth, along with several asteroids. When the series starts, there’s been about 3 years of peace.

And then, a mysterious foundation makes an offer to the NeoZeon remnants – a secret which will shake the Federation to the core. The dark heart at the center of the Universal Century.

The main trio of protagonists all grew up during the war years, and they all bear burdens based on legacies their parents & grandparents left.

Banager Links: An engineering student at the Anaheim Electronics school (leading builder of civilian and military mobile suits), Banager discovers he is the illegitimate son of Cardeas Vist, head of the powerful Vist foundation and holder of the LaPlace box – the key to the Federation’s power in the Earth Sphere. He’s given the Unicorn – a mobile suit designed to respond to(and destroy) NewTypes. It’s the map to the location of the LaPlace box.

Mineva Zabi: We first see her as a small baby in the original Mobile Suit Gundam series. Heir to the Zabi family, the ‘royalty’ behind the Dutchy of Zeon, she’s trying to prevent the Vist foundation from giving the box to the Zeon remnants under the command of the terribly named Full Frontal, as this may cause yet another war. Her grandfather, uncle, aunt and father were responsible for the start of the One Year War and all the horrors which ensued. History weighs heavily on her.

Riddhe Merceas: A Federation mobile suit pilot, assigned to the Nahel Aghama, part of the Londo Bell fleet. Their task is to neutralize Zeon remnants. Riddhe’s father is the Chairman of the Federation council and, through the series, he discovers that his family is the dark mirror of the Vist family, helping keep the LaPlace box secret and ensure the Federation remains in power.

The main series antagonists are a former member of the Vist family, now head of Anaheim Electronics and representing the corrupt side of the Earthnoids, and the Zeon remnants lead by Full Frontal. All are fighting for both the Unicorn and the data it’s revealing about the location of the LaPlace box.

In this series, the sins of the past weigh heavily on the plot and the characters. Each one starts off trying to free themselves from their legacies. Banager is our POV into this conflict, and the Unicorn is a literal representation of his legacy both negative (it’s designed to destroy NewTypes and the propaganda they represent for the Zeons) and positive (it literally responds to his will – a beast of possibility that grows with him).

And that thought of legacy, of paying for the sins of our parents and grandparents, is key to this show. At every turn, our protagonists are sincerely trying to avoid starting another war – Minevea’s whole character arc is about trying to fight against the Zabi’s genocidal legacy – but decisions they had no part in block the way. Riddhe eventually drowns because of his poison legacy, turning against his former friends and crew until the very end.

The show takes a lot of time to show the people getting caught up in this conflict. Between showing you good pilots on both side, as well as callous ones, you start to see the dividing lines are less about Earthnoid vs. Spacenoid, or Feddie vs. Zeek. It’s about power and control. Who has it? What do they want to do with it? Full Frontal is a (literal) Char Aznable clone but his plan for the LaPlace box is actually more terrifying than any colony drop – it literally involves isolating Earth and dooming it to economic irrelevance and impoverishment.

Cycles of violence are also a big part of this – do we choose to continue supporting the same cycle of violence? Mineva counters that Frontal’s plan by saying it will just flip elites, and we’ll have a generation of Earthnoids howling for blood against their oppressive Spacenoid masters. It won’t lead to a better world for anyone, just create fertile ground for the next war.

If any character represents poisoned legacies and cycles of violence, it’s Loni Garvey. Pilot of a massive Mobile Armor, it uses a psionic control system to direct fire through dozens of ‘funnels.’ It’s a system her family built, her father in specific, to tap into her Newtype capabilities and make her a weapon of mass destruction.

She and Banager connected, briefly, and on the battlefield he tries to use the Unicorn and their connection to get her to stop the slaughter. Innocent civilians are dying under the pent up rage of every Zeon remnant trapped on Earth for over a decade. And at one point they do connect. The system disarms – until the ghostly red hands of her father pushes Banager away. Literally possessed by her parent’s agenda, embodied in the war machine she pilots, she cannot stop the generational hate.

In the end Riddhe is forced to kill her while Banager watches a legacy of hate overcome the possibility of escape. It’s not the first, nor the last, tragic death in this story. But it illustrates the theme perfectly.

Given my family history, and the circumstances of my birth (GenX’er living under the shadow of the all powerful Baby Boom generation) this theme resonates with me. In the show, the Unicorn represents the ‘beast of possibility’ where we do not have to be trapped by past mistakes, and can make amends before going into the future. The show is about trying to find a better way than enforcing the same power structures and fighting the same wars over and over.

In the end, you do get a sense of hope that these kids – and they are all young kids – will be able to end the wars, escaping from their poisoned legacies and making something new. I like that idea and I do hope that our next generation can do the same.

I just despair that we won’t be able to do it – to escape, to stop the cycle, to reconcile and look for a better way – because we don’t have a Unicorn Gundam on our side. Where is our beast of possibility, or have they all been hunted down?

Traveling

Two posts this time around, mostly to cover a long silence. On May 21st I married.

Andrija and Lisa

And about a week later, we went on our honeymoon to Dubrovnik, Croatia; Vienna, Austria; and Prague, Czech Republic. I’m still working on processing the 1.5K photos I took of all three cities. Aside from giving me time with my wife to explore new places (and, in the case of Dubrovnik, introduce her to a city which dominated my psyche since I first saw it thirty years ago) it reminded me of the importance of travel.

Let me illustrate:

 

This is one (one!) of the lounges in the Grand Alchymist hotel in Prague. Created from two residences and a convent, it is absolutely unique. I’m still at a lost to describe the wide variety of Baroque decorations. Even one of the simple rooms (which we had) was a marvel. This place was unique, from the first time we stepped in to the last moments there, we marveled at every little detail.

I never would have experienced it had I not traveled. I never would have had a conversation with Michael, one of our porters, on coming to Roosevelt Island or walking along the George Washington Parkway in DC, were I not there. I never would have seen an old, battered android seated in the Alchymist’s courtyard with a cup of tea in its hand.

We cannot stay static. I’m lucky; I’ve gotten to get well away from my home and see different parts of the world. Not everyone has that chance, but there are other ways to travel, even if it’s just hopping the bus into a different neighborhood.

Talk to people. Look outside your world. Go places where you can hear different languages being spoken. Explore. Experience is the best way to feed the creative part of you.