Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Cliffhanger endings and unsolved mysteries reveal an uncomfortable truth: no matter how adamant our opinion behind our eyes lurks insecurity and doubt.

I want to talk about writing. Weird, huh?

It occurred to me as I was thinking about my White Walker post earlier this week that one of the things that keeps me coming back to George R.R. Martin's books are the unsolved mysteries. My mind yearns for answers, yet if I were to actually get them I'd swiftly grow bored and move on. But there's a curious thing that happens right before resolution: it's this desire to be validated about my theories as if my own opinion about something isn't enough. And it's something that I think all of us feel, which is why cliffhangers and unsolved mysteries have such a hold on us as human beings.

Take for example the movie "Inception." The ending is wide-open for interpretation and has been the root for countless argument between couples. Is the top going to spin forever thereby indicating that Leonardo's character is stuck in a dream? Or is the top going to topple over, thus proving that Leonardo is in the real world. The camera cuts (frustratingly) away from this scene before a resolution is delivered. And no matter who you ask, there's always an opinion. However, all of these opinions have one thing in common: they don't really trust themselves. In other words, they'd like the director to give them a final answer and "validate" what they believe. But if this were to happen, then some of the magic of the story would be gone.

This is one documented reason why Stephen Spielberg was so resistant in making changes to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" despite studio pressure. The master craftsman that he is, Spielberg knew that if people were allowed to see behind the curtain, that his film would somehow be diminished. And this is exactly what took place. Getting a view inside the interior of the mothership is the same as looking upon the Wizard of Oz and arriving at the realization that he's nothing but a Kansas con man. How many people were disappointed by this as children? I know I was. But when it came to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," lots of people wanted an answer because they didn't trust their opinion of what took place. It's just another sad case of people wanting it to be real only to be reminded that reality oftentimes disappoints.

So are we hardwired to always care what other people think? Are we always going to doubt our own opinions unless it is validated by someone else? The answer biologically may be yes because we experience a reward sensation in our brains when meeting with another's approval (as seen in M.R.I. scans).

If this holds true, then a skilled writer should be able to craft each chapter in such a way that it ends with an unsolved mystery or some kind of cliffhanger that forces the reader to turn the page in order to validate their own opinion. George R.R. Martin is a master of this. Me? Not so much (though I try really hard).

The critic Emily Nussbaum wrote in an essay that appeared in The New Yorker, "cliffhangers are fake-outs. They reveal that a story is artificial, then dare you to keep believing. If you trust the creator, you take that dare, and keep going." And that's just it because I think we are more apt to trust someone else than we are to trust ourselves.

I don't know if I had any kind of particular epiphany about this (or where it even came from) but it seems to me that cliffhanger endings and unsolved mysteries reveal an uncomfortable truth: that no matter how adamant our opinion, behind our eyes lurks insecurity and doubt. And that is why these two tropes keep paying off in spades. I look forward to your opinion in the comments even though I know you secretly don't trust it.

Monday, April 28, 2014

What we know about the White Walkers took a big step forward in Oathkeeper

White Walker by Elderscroller
Last night's episode of HBO's Game of Thrones was called "Oathkeeper" presumably titled thus because Brienne gave this name to the Valyrian steel blade gifted to her by Jaime Lannister. But the symbolism behind "Oathkeeper" is more vast than a solemn vow made between a knight and her lord. It is about the vows that bind those who have honor and choose to live in the world of Westeros. Everyone has oaths from the Red Viper of Dorne to those who swear fealty to House Targaryen. There's the oath that Jaime Lannister swore to Katelyn, the oaths that the Night's Watch takes to guard the southern kingdoms from the Wildling threat, and now we've seen a different kind of oath. It's one that gives us a glimpse behind the winter curtain of the North and into the society of the White Walkers by answering the question: "What are the Others doing with Craster's baby boys?"

Rumors and speculation over the fate of these babies has been online for years now. George R.R. Martin has never answered any of it in his books, presumably because he thought that he would get to answering certain questions before HBO caught up with him. But it's absolutely apparent from this episode that HBO's makers have been given license to cover material that Martin has not explained. And one of the BIGGEST questions is the fate of these children. Were the White Walkers eating them? Or did they need baby boys to reproduce?

But even with the answer from last night's episode, what do we know about the White Walkers really? Sifting through the novels and my own memory, I present to you my findings.
Called "the Others" in the book, Old Nan (the storyteller who knitted in Bran Stark's room following the accident that left him paralyzed) said, "In that darkness the White Walkers came for the first time. They swept through cities and kingdoms, riding their dead horses, hunting with their packs of pale spiders big as hounds."

The Others, a.k.a. the White Walkers are "mythologicals" in the world of Westeros (mythologicals meaning they occupy the same area of magic and power as dragons). Stories from the time of the First Men and the Children of the Forest, eight thousand years before Robert Baratheon's rebellion, was a winter known as the Long Night that lasted an entire generation. During that winter, the White Walkers descended upon Westeros from the Lands of Always Winter. None knew why they came, they killed everything in their path, and reanimated the dead as wights (under their command) to kill the living. In a conflict known as the War for the Dawn, the White Walkers were defeated and driven back, and the Wall was raised to bar their return.

We know they are humanoid in appearance and now we know why. From "Oathkeeper" the White Walkers (at the end) are seen transforming a baby boy into a baby White Walker in the middle of a cairn that looked a lot like Stonehenge (only made of ice). They are tall, have long wispy white hair, pale white skin that's stretched taut across their frames lending them a gaunt and mummified appearance, and they have glowing blue eyes. Could this be the Night's King? HBO Go briefly labeled this character (with an obvious crown) as such before they took it down. Here's what the wiki for a Song of Ice and Fire has to say about this character:

"According to legend, the Night's King lived during the Age of Heroes, not long after the Wall was complete. He was a fearless warrior, who was named the thirteenth Lord Commander of the Night's Watch. Later he fell in love with a woman "with skin as white as the moon and eyes like blue stars", he chased her and loved her though "her skin was cold as ice", and when he gave his seed to her he gave his soul as well.[1] (Her description matches that of the Others.)

"He brought her back to the Nightfort and after the unholy union, he declared himself king and her his queen, and ruled the Nightfort as his own castle for thirteen years. During the dark years of his reign, horrific atrocities were committed, of which tales are still told in the North. It was not until his own brother, the King in the North, and Joramun, the King-Beyond-the-Wall, joined forces that the Night's King was brought down and the Night's Watch freed. After his fall, when it was discovered that he had been sacrificing to the Others (possibly in similar way to Craster), all records of him were destroyed and his very name was forbidden.[1] It is likely this led the lords of the North to forbid the Night's Watch to construct walls at their keeps, ensuring the keeps would always be accessible from the south."

It should be noted that the Others are preceded by intense cold, bitter winds, and snow. They can freeze anything they touch to the point that even steel shatters (although Valyrian steel will probably resist them). They have superhuman strength, and they wield swords and spears made from ice. They also have their own language (Skroth), and it would appear that a touch to the face of a baby creates a "mini-me" version of themselves. Although why they need only babies (and human ones at that) remains unclear. Children even a few years old are not turned but instead slaughtered and made into wights to serve them, so there's something unique about newborns. What that could be is anyone's guess.

They also can be instantly killed by weapons made of dragonglass. According to the red priestess Melisandre of Asshai, the Others are the servants of a deity called the Great Other, the god of darkness, ice and death, who is locked in eternal warfare with R'hllor (the god that Melisandre worships). R'hllor is the god of light, fire, and life. We heard her speak of this God of Darkness this season so color me intrigued. But even with what we know about the White Walkers, there remains these questions:

1) Why are they so hateful?
2) If they are servants of the Great Other as Melisandre suggests, then what are the Great Other's goals?
3) If they need human babies to reproduce, then why do they slaughter humans? 

Friday, April 25, 2014

A chart that tells you where to start if you want to explore Discworld

The title says it all. Ever wanted to dig into Terry Pratchett's magnum opus? As with anything huge, a guide often  helps.
Have a favorite Discworld novel? Please share it in the comments.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

I seriously need an ending to this romance people! #haveyouseenthiscouple

Hello friends. I kind of got swept up in the romance of this documentary built around Justin Timberlake's song "Not a Bad Thing." The video that explains it all is embedded below and you REALLY should watch it because who doesn't need a real life romantic story? This kind of thing just warms my heart.

And there's also a lot of wisdom in this video from practically every kind of couple imaginable. Wisdom in the form of couples struggling to define what love is and what love means for them. I went through the video and made a transcript of all the times the couples mention love. Hopefully in the comments you will tell me which one is your favorite. And maybe you'll share something of yourself, and tell me what you think love is and how you would define it. Here's to wishing you many warm fuzzies (and seriously watch the video).
This is a true story. January 12th, 2014. It was a crisp cold Sunday night on a Long Island Railroad Train speeding towards New York City. It was a scene out of a movie like "Say Anything." A young man proposed to his girlfriend playing a Justin Timberlake song. They were so in love. You almost NEVER see that. We don't know who these people are or what their story is, but maybe you do. We're making a documentary about falling in love. Have YOU seen this couple?

Love is not something you can really look for. It's not scripted. It just happens.

You find love and then you lose love and then you have to work to find it again. And then you lose it.

I think if you really like...ya know, grow yourself and get to really know yourself first; then you can find love.

I think when you publicly propose to somebody it really inspires love all around.

Proposals, you plan it in your head, you plan it on paper, and in the end it's just who you're askin' to marry you and spend the rest of your life with.

I rolled out of bed one morning before my wife and said, "Will you marry me?"

I was confident that she would say yes. Otherwise I'd--
No, you weren't confident!
I was confident.

I think love is an attachment. And, um, I found that I was so attached to my lady that I couldn't love anyone else.

I think it's like a very brave thing to look for love, to fall in love, and to ask for someone to love you back.

Once you're in love, you're in love. You can't control that. It's not an off and on switch.

Love doesn't go in a straight line. There's curves and twists and turns and bumps.

Love finds you. Yeah, it finds you.

Twenty years later we're here and this guy...has appeared...four years...ago.

Six years later...engaged! See the ring!

We just got engaged.

Love is...whew...

Monday, April 21, 2014

You're a brilliant writer but so are millions of people you've never heard of

I'm not sure why writers even have random writer's groups. People get together and solicit from one another an opinion regarding one's work. It sounds helpful in theory, right? But here's the thing (and I'm speaking from experience): most writer's groups are comprised of people who primarily read one kind of genre (and that's the one they write in as well). And this is terribly dysfunctional in a large group. Allow me to elaborate by posing a few questions.

Why would someone who likes fantasy even value the opinion of someone who writes romance? Why would someone who writes young adult value the opinion of someone who writes memoirs? If you write romance, then why value what a science fiction schmuck like myself is going to say about it?

Here's my point: given their free time, these people (on their own) do NOT go to the bookstore and read the type of writing that you're doing. Yet, you're willing to listen to them either praise or rip apart (the more likely scenario) your writing as they tell you "this bores me" or "this doesn't work for me." You know what you should say? The whole genre probably bores you because you don't buy it and this invalidates your opinion. AUDIENCE IS EVERYTHING! Every manuscript has an audience and soliciting it to the wrong one is always going to get you negative feedback.

So yeah, I think writer's groups/critique sessions make absolutely no sense. Honestly the only reason I go (I no longer have work that I put before anyone) is because I enjoy the social atmosphere and the food. I suppose that's reason enough, right? Maybe my group of peeps should just come together and face an uncomfortable candor: that we should rename writer's group "game night" and play Bananagrams instead of critiquing one another's manuscript.

As a caveat, if you haven't ever played Bananagrams you really should try it. I once managed to spell "xylophone", but I digress...
This game is serious fun. If you disagree, then you're boring.
A couple months ago, I had a kind of "blow up" at my writer's group when I popped some inflated egos (some writers I network with think they are so adroit). Why do they think this? Because they are not online. They believe their insanity is unique. Just like a dominant religion in one area (where everyone believes the same thing), these writers exist in a bubble fooling themselves into thinking that they are part of a "gifted" minority group that has a story inside them, and that it is their mission to tell it to the world by means of a six-figure contract from a major New York publisher!

I tell them they really should go online. The noise to get noticed is deafening: a million voices raised in unison all chanting "I wrote a book, please read it." Just look at Twitter, Facebook, and the Blogosphere at large. If each writer were a grain of sand, then all of them together would make a beach that extends to the horizon like you see on HGTV's The Hawaii Life.

Some of the writers in my group are into super intricate world-building. You know what? It's really good stuff, and therein lies the rub. One guy has come up with monsters, has maps, a magic system, colorful characters, and tons of plots going on (kinda like George R.R. Martin). It's so intricate that I can't even begin to tell you the details. I even call it "brilliant." But here's the thing: a kaiju's belly full of writers are brilliant and crazy world-building is done all the time by millions of Dungeon Masters worldwide. That statement should tell you two things. The first is that Dungeon Masters at every con from coast to coast are creative people. This makes "creativity" as a commodity in writing about as common as dirt. The second is that I think George R.R. Martin could probably run an interesting Dungeons & Dragons game if you could keep it from descending into sex talk.

I told this group that there are so many people out there making worlds, typing away at keyboards, who have come up with planets that do this, and magic systems that do that, and political intrigue that do this other thing that you could fill Salt Lake's largest convention center with their numbers. I think I used the phrase, "I could throw a spongy rock in a crowd and it would bounce off the noggin' of someone brilliant! Therefore, you are not special. And I'm sorry to burst your bubble about this."
That was when I faced outrage. One of the older writers in the group said, "Mike, you are wrong! Most people who write shouldn't be writing. They don't have the talent. The ones that do have the talent get recognized and get publishing contracts." Keep in mind that the writer who said this has had some success in her professional career so it's in her best interest to keep the myth alive that "talent gets its just reward." However the earth, the stars above, and the society at large very rarely recognize "talent" because it's too common. Think of it this way: if you get an "A" on an exam you are in the top 10%. This means that 1 in 10 people can duplicate exactly what you did. In a world populated by 7 billion, the "A" is actually meaningless. Of real value would be the person that could score a 99.9999999998% because that would make you unique.

So I said, "No they don't. I'm sorry but I disagree. I think there's plenty of evidence that some very profitable writers get published by major names and don't have 'talent' as you say. I think that people who sell a lot of books (as in the millions) got lucky. This isn't something you can strategize. Circumstances unique to their lives that have nothing to do with planning and everything to do with serendipity made their stories HUGE best sellers. Names like Stephanie Meyer, George R.R. Martin, and Amanda Hocking. And to insist that you are better than someone else who isn't published or doesn't have a contract is just a lie. It comes from the fact that you're probably starved for validation because you've been mediocre most of your life and secretly have contempt for others because you feel you've never been recognized for how smart you are. But there's lots of smart people in this world, and being smart doesn't make you a genius. Genius is extremely rare, and when you actually see it, it knocks your socks off. Just look at Mozart and Salieri because Salieri can tell you what that feels like. As for writing, be thankful if you EVER make it big because it means you won the lottery. That's it. People who win the lottery don't go around and say, 'He he, I won because I was smarter than everyone else.' They say something like, 'Gosh I sure was lucky.'"

It may sound like I'm a real sour puss when it comes to the business of writing and publishing, but I'm not. In truth I'm probably the best advocate for writers because I don't bullshit them. I encourage people to write all the time (that ask me) and I point the many ways in which someone can navigate the business. But here's what I say to their elaborate plots and wonderful characters that inevitably bombard my ears: "It sounds brilliant and you have a very creative mind. But never forget that there are millions of people out here who are just as brilliant and just as creative. If your manuscript doesn't attract the attention of an agent who goes through fifty thousand submissions in a month, it may be that you lack that 'extra something' that has nothing to do with writing and everything to do with something that's not within your ability to control. And if you fail and never realize your dream? Well that happens too, and it sucks for you. Sometimes it's better to pick up a book and be the audience for someone else that HAS made it, because in the death of your dream is born one that belonged to someone else. And that isn't so bad. Not everyone can be a star. Not everyone can be super. Not everyone can be special. In our society there's the cream of the crop and then there's everyone else. That's just how it is; welcome to capitalism. Think about it. In a society where everyone is super, no one is. There's great comfort in belonging to the 'everyone else,' because you're rubbing shoulders with great people who just haven't had the distinction of being recognized. Trust me on this, because I speak from experience." No one wants to be mediocre. It just happens and asking "why me?" will never bring you peace of mind.

I'll leave you with this thought from Syndrome in Pixar's The Incredibles because (despite the uncomfortable message) it is oh so true:

Friday, April 18, 2014

I rarely feel nostalgic and I think that's a good thing

I've seen enough of this to never want to watch it again. Give me new stories.
I find curious the effect that nostalgia tends to have on putting a shine on things that really aren't that good. Take for example the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. I can't watch "Raiders" these days and not laugh at it for the horrible and cheesy fight choreography in the bazaar. When Indiana Jones swings his fist, it's absolutely clear that he misses them, and then there's almost a one second delay before the person he's hitting does a "jerk" and falls backward. And lets not even mention the effects. They look nearly as bad as the Godzilla movie that flat out puts a guy in a rubber suit to topple buildings.

And of course there are the stars from the past. Namely I'm thinking of Audrey Hepburn. She's all over the place these days with Kim Kardashian and others trying to mimic her skinny jeans look with the ballet flats on her feet. I've seen Breakfast at Tiffany's, Charade, and many other Hepburn films. She honestly isn't as good an actress as Vivien Leigh or Betty Davis yet she's popping up more and more in our culture as if she were some timeless icon (which I refuse to believe she is). Hepburn was just a woman (will I get stoned for saying that?) I don't even think she's all that beautiful aside from having a neck as long as a swan (which made it so that she could wear a string of pearls like nobody's business). So why are people pretending like she's the most incredible actress ever and even using computer generated graphics to include her ghost in Dove chocolate commercials?

Merriam-Webster defines nostalgia as a "wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition." In my life I've noticed that people love to mourn the extinction of things, and it puzzles me. I no longer listen to 80's music unless it happens to pop up on the radio, and then I usually want to change the station to NPR and listen to something relevant to my time. I never liked eating Twinkies and could care less whether or not they were even available. I don't understand people's obsession with records or even paperback books (they are cumbersome and heavy). I don't pine over how no movie trilogy set in the Star Wars universe will ever be as good as the holy grail of "A New Hope," "Empire," and "Return of the Jedi." Those films were pretty terrible! The dialogue is horrible for one and the acting poor. I don't miss "Leave it to Beaver," "Dobie Gillis," or the fantasy films of my youth that had Harryhausen effects like the original Clash of the Titans. We should all be thankful that CGI has swept the entertainment industry giving us fantastic things like Cameron's Avatar and The Desolation of Smaug. The only thing I like about old houses is the character from the outside. On the inside I want everything modern from electrical, to appliances, to the open floor plans... I'd much rather own a 2014 Kia Optima than a 1980 Smoky and the Bandit Trans Am. The list goes on and on. Maybe I'm an alien because I just don't get why people cling to the past so much.
You know, I don't fault Lucas, Spielberg, or any other director that revisits old films and tries to make them better with new technology. They really do look terrible. I can't stand watching the first Terminator. It's so cheesy. Maybe this is a time to say that reboots really do serve a great purpose because they can be way better than the original. Anyone nostalgic for the original True Grit? For me it's unwatchable.  I'll take the new one over the old any time.

I think that it's good that all things have a time and a place to just die off and that includes ideas. It kind of bothers me that people (and scientists in particular) chatter on about someday finding a way to make humans immortal. There's even a movie out this weekend that kind of broaches this subject (starring Johnny Depp). I find the idea of never having to die an attractive one until I realize that all of the old political and religious opinions that make my life miserable would stay alive with the people who perpetuate them. So yeah, I guess that makes me an advocate of the Grim Reaper. There's a time and a place for death. It allows all of us an opportunity to move forward, nostalgia be damned.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Is the Lion and the Rose the ultimate critique on our modern society, our widespread apathy, and the tyrants we fear?

You may have heard of Megan Huntsman in the news. If you haven't, then this is all you need to know: she's a local (Utah) gal who was booked into the Utah County jail on suspicion of killing six of her newborn children over a 10-year period. Seven dead babies were found on April 12, 2014 in a garage at a Pleasant Grove home where Huntsman lived up until 2011.

Is there a lesson to any of this? Not really. Utah captured one monster and this sicko's name is Megan Huntsman. But anyone that thinks a change has happened is just fooling themselves. People saw Megan for years. They never interacted with her; they never said a word even if they thought something suspicious might be going on. It reminds me of stories of girls who get kidnapped and are held in backyards next door to neighbors who ignore what's happening on the other side of the fence.

This "stick your head in the sand and scream LA LA LA" part of our culture won't change because we live in a society that prizes its privacy. People have been raised to detest intrusion; even the American dream consists of a picket fence. This notion of building walls has a purpose: to hedge the "riff raff" out. I've noticed a trend among young people in this area. They are initially outgoing until they meet someone and get into a relationship. From that part forward its all about building walls, separation, and isolation to "couple-only" activities. The wishes of the couple are all filled with dichotomies like "I want to have access to all the things that a city has to offer, but I don't want any of the people around that might tell me what to do or influence my children or possibly covet my partner."

They don't even bother to ask: do any of the things I want run counter-intuitive to each other? Yes it's possible for isolation in a big city, but not without a lot of money to build a house on a double lot to ensure that the neighboring houses aren't staring into your windows, and then put a wall around that house to keep all the undesirables out. Ever drive into a gated community? It's kind of a surreal, sterile experience. It's like driving into a land ruled by the Borg from Star Trek where everyone thinks the same and all yards have one tree, accent lighting, and varying degrees of the same paint job. But most of them (if asked) will tell you how much better life is inside the wall than outside. Otherwise they wouldn't choose to live there, right? Life is better where you don't have to deal with commoners.

Game of Thrones has this same loathsome view that the rich have for the poor in spades. It's funny how access to money makes people think that they are better than other people who don't have money. As I watched the "Purple Wedding" episode of Game of Thrones on Sunday wherein King Joffrey dies, I thought to myself, how can George R.R. Martin's world be so ridiculously cruel yet so real to me? And suddenly I thought of Megan Huntsman, and it all became clear as glass. George is a master observer, and he's merely imbuing these characters with what I'm seeing every day. And most of that is how ugly, petty, and inhuman people are. This episode has so many examples of people being awful that it's hard to cover them all. But, like a good blogger, I'll give it my best shot.

There's Stannis Bartheon. This "would be" king watches as his witch/high priestess Melisandre burns three loyal supporters at the stake (one is his brother-in-law whose only crime is refusing to tear down his altars to the Seven Gods when Stannis orders it). And yes, just like Megan Huntsman, no one says a thing. Everyone just watches it all go down with a kind of "clueless" expression.

Then there's Reek. Reek, a.k.a. Theon Greyjoy, just watches as Ramsay Snow slaughters an innocent girl because she's pretty and made his girlfriend jealous. For the record, Ramsay shot the girl in the leg so that the dogs could rip her pretty face off. I guess she isn't so pretty anymore.

Oh and of course there's Joffrey. How can we not forget the most vile character in the series? Has there ever been anyone more hated and grotesque than this young king? Let's just concentrate on the wrongs that he visited upon everyone in this episode:

1) Joffrey makes a hideous spectacle by humiliating his uncle Tyrion and his wife, Sansa, over and over again. He insults him, pours wine on his head, and makes him his cup-bearer (which Tyrion tries to turn into a compliment) but it isn't. Joffrey makes him bend over to pick up his cup, kicks it under the table, and is just a complete ass. I suppose what may be most shocking is the fact that he's clueless that he's actually so awful. I know people who are exactly like this: completely unaware to the idea that they are chauvinist pigs, jerks, and ignorant. And these aren't old people but young, raised in households that stuck a silver spoon in their mouths and raised them to call "flight attendants" by the name "stewardess" even though that term hasn't been used in twenty years.

2) Joffrey pretends to take an interest in a book that Tyrion's given him for his wedding only to destroy it with his next gift, a Valyrian sword forged from Ned Stark's original weapon. Not only that, but he cracks jokes about beheading Ned Stark over and over again. I suppose cutting a book to ribbons isn't so far-fetched these days. There's plenty of people in our society now who view reading as a chore and would like nothing better than to see books burned.

3) Joffrey throws things at minstrels, gives people money to be cruel to his fool, and then hires five little people to impersonate himself and other kings to recreate the murder of Robb Stark. It's all calculated to insult Sansa and Tyrion to the max. This kind of behavior is called bullying, and I see it every day.

When Joffrey died, the internet the world over celebrated. In a way, it reminded me of how the world celebrated when Osama Bin Laden died. I think that's where George is at his most brilliant and his most real. George recognizes that the world is filled with tyrants and that there are very few people who ever stand up to these tyrants. Most of us are guilty of allowing them to go about their business, doing awful things, because our lives are too busy or too valuable to get involved in stopping so much evil. Maybe when Melisandre of Ashai said, "The world we live in now is the real hell" she was not just uttering a line, but taking a cue from the master himself and showing us what George R.R. Martin really thinks of this world. Perhaps The Lion and the Rose is the ultimate critique on our modern society, our widespread apathy, and the tyrants we fear.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Why I kind of detest time travel in my science fiction

Continuum is a show that's on SyFy, and its third season started a week ago. Warning: there will be some spoilers ahead (if only to use as a platform to allow me to bitch). So in Continuum, we've got this organization called Freelancers. We don't know much about them other than they like to put time travelers in glass boxes similar to Joss Whedon's horror movie Cabin in the Woods and they are an ancient organization that's been around for over a thousand years that doesn't "time travel." Instead they know all about "time travel", have great technology to do so, and monitor the integrity of the timeline like a "firewall" monitors the integrity of your network. When bad stuff gets through to corrupt the present, then they selectively choose and dispatch a cure because not everyone that goes into the past has the ability to change the future.

Continuum has decided to integrate time travel so much that it's a plot device. In some ways this works for me. I do like the idea that every time you time travel, you create a new branch of the timeline. I like the idea that when you time travel, you could meet yourself and this would be bad. It explains why Kagame had to sacrifice himself on the day he was born just to make sure that he never met himself (that was season one). It also explains why Kiera could not go forward in time and just stop herself from ever embarking on time travel to begin with.
I also like the idea that major paradoxes cause the universe to destroy itself. In Continuum, there's no Alec to grow up and invent the time machine and create Kiera's advanced suit and weaponry so super storms are basically destroying the earth. That scratches out one timeline.

It all sounds like great science fiction, right? But here's the thing: I feel like too much time travel just moves all the writing "left" into another universe kind of like a dream or where all the characters are just slightly different because they don't shave or wear wigs. I'm not a fan of "good Spock" meets "evil Spock" (nerdy Star Trek reference I know) and that's essentially what we're getting in this season of Continuum. Kiera has basically become an asshole because she's so stressed out over what her timeline Alec has done and it's almost like we've got entirely different characters. For one, she no longer trusts Alec (which was one of the things I really liked). Also, the flash futures no longer make sense to me because I don't know if they're actually plausible given the split that's now caused by so many time travelers going back in the past. Like why should I care if these things may or may not even exist now?

I guess this is where time travel really gets under my skin in a bad way. I detest clones running around and I don't think it ever really improves a narrative. Back to the Future's installments 2 and 3 were not superior to the original in this aspect and were simply an excuse to spend more time with a loveable character. Hopefully they (the writers of Continuum) will just stick with the one timeline and not pull this crap again because its too confusing, and I don't like the character changes occurring in their personality. Honestly, writers should steer clear of time travel. No one ever does it well unless "time travel" is part of the opening and that's where the readers/watchers are dropped. Doing time travel mid-series is just too awkward.

Friday, April 11, 2014

The body count in the Walking Dead and a Game of Thrones results in the ultimate question.

"Valar Morghulis" means "All men must die." But actors in need of a job
may be hoping that it is not their turn for the cutting room floor.
So now that HBO's Game of Thrones is back on television and dripping with the stench of those they carved up last season in the infamous "Red Wedding" episode...and given that "The Walking Dead" is on hiatus until fall but left Rick Grimes and crew basically locked up in the post-apocalyptic version of a larder for cannibals...there is a question that's been burning in the back of my mind. But before I get to that question for you (my readers) to decide, I want to present a thorough analysis beginning with George R.R. Martin's work. These are deaths of major and/or semi major characters in the story (they all appeared in more than one episode and had lines).

Eddard Stark was played by well-known fan favorite and actor Sean Bean. Many of us thought for sure that with this casting, he wouldn't get killed. But he got his head chopped off in season one.

What about Robb Stark, his son? Well Robb got murdered along with his mother Catelyn Stark at the Red Wedding. Weddings are supposed to be happy occasions. I guess Walder Fray never got the memo.

Renly Baratheon? Murdered by a demon sent by Melisandre the witch.

Kal Drogo? Poisoned by a soothsayer and witch. The best parts of him died when Daenerys refused to let him go and was rewarded with a body that lived but had no mind. Then she killed him.

Robert Baratheon? He was a king and I quite like the actor. But he got done in by conspirators and traitors and died too.

Talisa Stark (Robb's wife)? She got stabbed in the baby maker at the Red Wedding. That's like killing two wolves with one rock.

Viserys Targaryen? Kal Drogo crowned him with molten gold. That had to hurt.

Ros? Littlefinger found out she was spying on him for Varys so he gave her to King Joffrey who used her as a live target, brutally killing her by filling her with crossbow bolts.

Jeor Mormont, leader of the Crows, has his watch ended in Crastor's keep by Rast who betrays him.

Xaro Xhoan Daxos is killed when Dany seals him in his own vault from which there is no escape.

Pyat Pree the necromancer is set on fire by Daenerys' dragons.

Rakharo, one of Daenerys' blood riders, dies off screen when his horse returns bearing a severed head.

Body count for HBO's Game of Thrones is 13 (and this excludes probably a hundred minor characters). Okay, so now for The Walking Dead. Here's who we've lost thus far (by the end of season four):
These iconic characters didn't die yet. But do the actors have job security?
Decide by taking my poll!
Amy (Andrea's sister) got bitten in the neck and died of blood loss.

Jim got bit in the stomach, died of infection.

Dr. Edwin Jenner and Jacqui died in an explosion at the CDC via suicide.

Otis was hobbled by Shane and devoured by walkers.

Sophia (Carol's daughter) died of infection from a walker bite.

Dale got disemboweled by a walker. Rick Grimes put him out of his misery with the trusty colt python.

Randall got his neck broke by Shane.

Shane was stabbed in the heart by his best friend Rick.

Jimmy got devoured by walkers.

Big Tiny got his head bashed in repeatedly.

Tomas got his head split in half by Rick and a machete.

T-Dog got devoured by walkers.

Andrew was shot in the head.

Lori was dying from childbirth complications so her son, Carl, killed her out of mercy.

Merle was shot in the chest by the Governor.

Milton was stabbed repeatedly in the stomach by the Governor.

Andrea got bitten on the shoulder by Milton and then committed suicide.

Karen and David were killed by Carol and then set on fire.

Caleb (the doctor) died from an unknown flu.

Caesar Martinez got bashed over the head by the Governor who then fed him (while still alive) to walkers.

Hershel got decapitated by the Governor.

The Governor was stabbed in the chest by Michonne (and killed).

Lizzie got put down by Carol (in one of the most shocking episodes ever).

Joe (leader of the claim gang) got his throat ripped out by Rick Grimes (and he bled to death).

That's twenty-four deaths of characters that got varying degrees of screen time, but all of them had speaking parts on the show. Just from memory (and looking at these numbers) I'd have to say that the group of actors in HBO's Game of Thrones probably have better job security in their characters. The Walking Dead is just way more brutal.

Agree? Disagree? What say you? Please take my poll and have a good Wednesday.
Which group of actors have better job security? free polls 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Being Human had its swan song and now its all over but the crying

Being Human is over. I shall miss you guys so much.
I sit here late at night writing this post because I can't get the images of the series finale for SyFy's Being Human out of my head. This was a gem of a series not because it did anything ground breaking with the mythology behind werewolves, ghosts, and vampires, but because it focused so much on the characters and how their love for each other was all that mattered when they died.

Being Human in its final hour made me sob so many times. The first time came only moments into the show when Sally (by far my favorite character) made the choice to cast a spell that would claim her immortal soul, but she did it because it was the only way to keep Josh safe from an enraged Aiden. Through season after season I thought for sure that Sally would eventually get her door. She missed her door in season one when she helped Aidan, so this isn't how things are supposed to end, right? But that's exactly how it ended, and Sally did what Sally always did: she made a choice out of love, door be damned. And her goodbye was so perfect and so filled with good that it just didn't seem right that this is how this character goes out.

In monologue came the most profound explanation behind Sally's choice:

"The day they moved in was the best day. It felt like the start of something new, something good. After everything that had gone so wrong with my life, they walked in that door and they brought possibility. When you look back at your life with a person, sometimes you wonder, would we be friends if we met now? Or did the path that we went on together lead us to this place? Did every triumph and mistake along the way make us fall in love? I think that everything happens for a reason: love, life, even death. I hold onto this place for a reason, and that reason is now."

In the aftermath of Sally's sacrifice (that made Aidan human) the once mighty vampire is laid low first by sadness at losing Sally, and second by the thread of his own mortality which is quickly overtaking him. All those centuries start to catch up on Aidan, turning his hair gray, and making him move like a man in his nineties. With the specter of dying (and the fear that results from that) Aidan almost makes a choice to become a vampire again. However Josh stops him, and in that redemption I got a new respect for Aidan because he decides to make sure that Josh and Nora would go on to live happy lives by returning to the house that lay at the center of their world. He did this to burn it down in order to kill a malicious ghost that haunted it (and was murdering people because they all moved out). Josh says in monologue to a dream (one Josh and Nora seem to have shared):

"The day we moved in was the first day of my life. Before then, before them, I had no chance, I didn't think I could feel human, feel love. The little things--coffee grounds, laundry day, sleeping late, living life--thank you for every small moment of this world."

I guess Josh's words reminds me of that song, "Little Wonders" sung by Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20. Have you heard it? In any event, each of the cast central to this series gets to say something profound in this final episode. But, I think Aidan's final haunting words as he's dying in their home near Sally's death spot captures the essence of the series the best (and very poetically):

"When the end comes rushing up at you and everything that you thought was real starts to fall away, you consider the meaning of the life that you lived and you realize that the only thing that means a damn thing at the end is what you loved. And you think of who you loved, and you let it take you home."

Oh my gosh. I guess all that ever really matters to any of us who are human is the feeling of home, right? Some like to say it's where you hang your hat. But really, it's where you are loved and where your memories are forged. Home is the place that defines you. This finale was bittersweet but very satisfying. There are series that end with characters leaving an empty apartment or whatever place brought them together. This one ended with Josh and Nora as the parents of two adorable kids named Aidan and Sally. And therein is the true prize: Josh and Nora made it. They got to be happy and have a family.

Josh told Aidan's ghost right as he got his door (a thing that vampires are never supposed to be able to get), "We promise to live ridiculous lives in your honor." The chemistry of this cast made this the little series that could, and I think I'll never forget how it made me feel when all things came to an end.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Aspiring writers could take a few cues from the inventiveness in Godzilla because clever is the new black

I'll just get right to the point: there's a new extended trailer out for Godzilla (due out next month) and you should watch it to prove you're not a complete dullard. Most of the footage in it seems to be new. I don't know if you're one of the people that's following this like I am (I am my own particular brand of crazy), but it is pretty exciting. At around the 2:15 mark there's a glimpse of what looks like a new kaiju through the window of a train. And when Bryan Cranston seals his wife into a contaminated area of the plant they're both working at there's a pink/lavender mist that looks really ominous and has nothing to do with supporting breast cancer. I kept asking myself "What is it?" which is probably what I'm supposed to be asking. But when I ask questions like that I just produce even more questions:

1) Is the Godzilla in this movie going to be some kind of angry god? Or will he be Earth's protector and champion like Toho later evolved him into?

2) What are these new kaijus? Are they enemies of Godzilla? Do they have cool powers?

3) Is anyone else tired of the Golden Gate Bridge getting trashed?

4) Could Bryan Cranston make me believe anything? Seriously...this guy's acting ability could sell me on using paper towels as toilet paper. He's that good. Example: Bryan Cranston is panicking? Okay shit just got real folks.

5) Is the plant featured in the film (that has a nuclear accident) Fukushima? Are they really going to go there? That probably means either the Japanese are going to love this film, or they're going to hate it. There won't be any middling "feels" here. The last time Americans made a Godzilla film, the Japanese put out one of their own (in short order) that featured the Godzilla from the Mathew Broderick film. It got its ass kicked by the real Godzilla in under ten seconds. I'm not kidding.

The film coming out next month has the awesome potential to be a really huge deal because it has a solid cast, a good story, and effects that are impressing the hell out of me. And by solid story, the writing seems to "frame" history in clever context. Take (for example) these particular talking points (and yes I know I've used up my allotted ration of bullets):

1) All those nuclear tests that we did in the Pacific? The public was told they were tests...but what was really happening is that the army was trying to kill something huge.

2) And if that is Fukushima going up (with the purple mist that kills Cranston's wife) then the earthquake that started it all may have been caused by Godzilla. How cool is that? Or uncool if you don't like the idea that a huge fire-breathing lizard thing is responsible for the deaths of thousands of people.

Either way, I like it when writers get clever with history. It feeds into my "conspiracy theory" gene that for the most part remains dormant. I'll even go so far as to say this: aspiring writers could take a few cues from the inventiveness in Godzilla because clever is the new black. As I edit my own manuscript this week, I'll be thinking of ways I can frame historical context or scientific observation to make sense of the weirdness in my stories.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Flash Boys is an eye-opening reveal of the highway robbery taking place on Wall Street every day

It's amazing how quickly technology changed how Americans do business. I had assumed prior to picking up Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis, that computers had taken over trading with algorithms going back to at least year 2000. However, the change was more recent than that. It happened in and around 2007-2008. Mr. Lewis conjured an image of a trading floor full of screaming brokers slamming telephones along with a hysteria-infused ticker tape like you see in the movie Trading Places, and all of that ended less than a decade ago. It's now pretty quiet at the exchanges and much of what gets done happens in secretive black boxes.

The New York Stock exchange and the Nasdaq are two "for profit" businesses that provide a platform for the buying and selling of stock. Because they are "for profit", high frequency traders have been able to get an edge on everyone else. One company (calling itself Spread Network and under stealth conditions reminiscent of Cold War espionage) built an absolutely straight tunnel to run fiber-optic cable through the mountains of Pennsylvania. This involved drilling, getting permission from every small town along the way, making sure that no one ever figured out what the tunnel was for, and spending hundreds of millions of dollars. When completed, Spread Network sold access to their "cable" for $14 million each...access that gave a .00008 second advantage on the buying and selling of stock.

What does this mean? Well with the right algorithm (and they did have the right algorithm) a high-frequency trader could identify a big order coming in from say Pershing Square (hedge fund controlled by Bill Ackman) for scooping up a million shares of a company, buy all that available stock on the open market a micro-second before the order hit, and then turn around and resell those stocks to Pershing for more money because they were no longer available.

If you don't understand how this works imagine this: you are at a supermarket and there are a limited number of bananas on the shelf (as there always are) and you need to buy some. As you reach for the bananas, someone pushes you out of the way, buys all the bananas, and then offers to resell them to you for five cents more.

Is this at all capitalism? Is this what America is about these days? Or is this just highway robbery?
As you can see from this graph, high-frequency trading happens in bursts.
The line at the bottom is the stock market activity involving General Electric
shares over 100 milliseconds (one-tenth of a second) at 12:44 p.m. on Dec 19th.
So these 44 trades basically happened during that time (source: New York Times).
There are two camps of thought on this subject and they've been raging ever since Michael Lewis' book came out earlier this week (I started reading it on Monday).

The first train of thought goes like this: It is capitalism because high-frequency traders provide liquidity to the market. Additionally, Spread Network paid to have the tunnel built and the exchanges (which are "for profit" businesses) gave their blessing, and if you wanted to they would do the same for you (the only problem being that the average Joe like you and me doesn't have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on a cable).

The second train of thought (mine) goes like this: These people are crooks. They are pirates and need to be stopped. Forcefully making yourself a middleman in a two entity transaction is criminal. Sure, these high-frequency traders are making a very small margin of profit per share, but the thing is, when mutual fund managers of 401K's and retirement plans are moving assets around that total billions of dollars, these mosquitoes ravage the common person's money (essentially adding hidden fees on top of what you're already getting screwed out of by taxes and regular fees). In other words: it's bullshit.

It's going to be interesting to see the fallout from this book and whether or not the heroes, one is named Bradley Katsuyama, are vindicated or vilified for daring to come out and say that the markets are rigged (high-frequency traders have been attacking him publicly ever since the release of the book). For me, Katsuyama is a hero, pointing out what I'd suspected about Wall Street but never had any proof. I'm not a day trader but a long-term investor, so the impact on what I do personally is minimal (outside of my retirement plan). But because my retirement plan is getting bigger and more significant, it pisses me off that these swarming insects will scalp further profit from a pile of money that should rightfully be mine.

Consider this fact: In early 2013, one of the largest high-frequency traders, Virtu Financial, publicly boasted that in five and a half years of trading it had experienced just one day when it hadn't made money. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley can't do this, so how is HFT even allowed to happen? The more I think about it, the more it really starts to make my blood boil.

Do any of you have an opinion? Or has apathy at how unfair life is finally taken its toll and beaten you into the ground? I look forward to reading your comments.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Walking Dead explores the last taboo by hinting at cannibalism in season five

Sunday's "A" episode of The Walking Dead had what looked like a
slaughtering pit filled with human skeletons. I could be wrong though.
If there is insecurity in my writing, it's that the things that I like to read or watch broach subjects so hard-hitting and in ways that are so real, that I doubt my own abilities to recreate the same. I think I'll never be able to evoke this kind of emotion. Take dark fiction as an example. Everyone knows that I'm a fan, especially when it comes to science fiction that takes on a horror twist. When I'm engrossed in these kinds of stories, inevitably I compare them to my own works. The little voice inside pipes up and says, "Your stuff is boring compared to this." Maybe it's just an uncomfortable truth; I guess only a lifetime of writing will give me the perspective to answer this to my liking.

Cormac McCarthy published The Road in 2006. It's a post-apocalyptic story where a father and his young son (over a period of several months) cross a landscape languishing in the fall of civilization. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007. In thinking of the blasted environs of The Road I am reminded of the sardonic voice of Tyrion Lannister in George R.R. Martin's magnum opus, A Clash of Kings. Tyrion at one point turns to his "beloved" sister Cersei and says, “A day will come when you think yourself safe and happy, and suddenly your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth, and you'll know the debt is paid."

In The Road, there is no debt to pay unless it is to the unnamed sins of the survivors who are ambiguous in the insistence that they are the good guys. The land is ashes, it is devoid of living animals and vegetation, and many of the remaining human survivors are cannibals, scavenging the detritus of city and country for flesh to eat. The horrors they face include seeing a newborn infant roasted on a spit and captives being gradually harvested for food.

This is the kind of darkness that has come to The Walking Dead whether by caveat that it was always this way and we were in denial, or whether it was driven in this direction because it is exhausting its ability to continually shock the audience. In either case by the close of season four Rick, Michonne, his young son Carl, and the other survivors reached "the end of the line" at Terminus, are now imprisoned in a rail car painted with an "A" (by what we can presume are cannibals), and are in a heap of trouble.

Is it disturbing how effectively Scott Gimple has been able to build attachment in these characters? Disturbing, yes but also brilliant. It's hard for me to not squirm in my seat. The creepiness of Terminus makes the Governor look tame. I can only imagine that next season will probably be a grotesque blood bath, with amputations being done via tourniquet because the world has no refrigeration. In other words, the living monsters are alive while they eat you (and probably discussing the day's business and how much they miss Facebook). The hints have been strong, from the constant barbecuing of meat when there are no animals around, to what looks like a slaughter pit filled with the bloody skeletal remains of butchered humans (shown only briefly on screen), and the strange foreshadowing of the rabbit trap.

And what about previous episodes? Remember this painting? Contrast it with the appearance of Mary, the woman we met at Terminus played by Denise Crosby, a.k.a. Tasha Yar from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The image (posted on Reddit) suggests that Michonne and Carl were in this lady's house. Take a look at the hair, the layers of clothing, and remember the bloodbath in the nursery. There was also a picture of a dog on the wall that looks eerily similar to the dog that distracted Daryl and led to Beth's kidnapping. 
The dog on the wall behind Carl looks a lot like the one-eyed dog in
the episode that resulted in Beth's kidnapping.
The theme for this season's The Walking Dead has pretty much been "internal monsters." It isn't too much of a stretch to imagine that the food on Mary's barbecue is human (probably Beth's and that makes me sad). Unfortunately, these events also parallel those that occur in The Walking Dead comic book, a.k.a. the appearance of "The Hunters" that I mentioned in a post last week. This leads me to the next question: what is it about cannibalism that we find so terrifying? Perhaps it's the idea of being someone else's food, and that we can imagine those around us adopting this lifestyle were times to get tough. Yes, you read that last line right. Your neighbors are perfectly capable of eating you if they were starving.

According to a new poll from the Society for Progressive Meat, I learned that 10% of Americans would consider eating humans while a measly 3% would consider going all vegan. 2,500 respondents were polled over a two-week period. Interesting eh? Admittedly, this poll was commissioned by an organization associated with efforts to introduce human meat to the mainstream. So there's no doubt that the members of this society get their buddies to drive up the numbers similar to how bloggers get their followers to do the same on goodreads (should I be disturbed that there's a society devoted to cannibalism?) But the study does seem to point to an unsettling fact: many of us could become monsters if the situation warranted it.

I suppose it shouldn't surprise me that The Walking Dead is exploring this last human taboo. It's arguably one of the components that led Forbes to declare the season finale "the most watched hour ever." Zombies have been chomping down on humans through four seasons now, so why should it be any different when those humans are actually alive? For me it has to do with the horror of a reality check in which there is no sanctuary at all in a society that utterly collapses. Without some measure of trust, society is impossible. After all, how can you trust anyone who could possibly view you as dinner?

I've got to hand it to the likes of The Walking Dead. The story (in my opinion) is part of a select group of fiction I label "the best in the business." Can something be so good that it actually discourages you in your own ambitions? I think so.

This post is part of the Insecure Writer's Support Group collective. Go HERE to find out more.