The Glue of Truthiness

Doing some self-directed training at work made me think about our current controversy over alternative facts. And that, in turn, made me think about an insight from fictional detective Harry Bosch in the novel The Black Ice by Michael Connelly. As Bosch pieces together the clues to a cop’s murder, he recalls something he was told early in his career: you can have all the facts you want, but facts mean nothing without figuring out the glue holding them together.

That’s a great insight on Bosch/Connelly’s part (Connelly was an L.A. Times crime reporter before turning to fiction). What is the glue that holds the facts together? If you investigate deeper, you piece together the meaning, the truth.

Of course, we all have deep convictions we often hold onto no matter the contrary evidence. We are all also guilty of reacting to contrary evidence by clinging even stronger to our convictions. Or we cherry-pick stuff that supports our convictions.

But, what if we dig deeper? Will we find the facts and their truths are as flimsily held together by edible Elmer’s paste as a kindergartener’s art project? Or will we discover a solid bond held together with Krazy Glue?

I love questions like this. It’s one of the reasons I love fiction and believe fiction is truthier than nonfiction. Of course, it’s usually also much more entertaining. And that’s a fact!

— Todd

Review of The Pursuit of Perfection and how it Harms Writers

Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s The Pursuit of Perfection: And How It Harms Writers (WMG Writer’s Guide) (Volume 3) is one of the best — though brief at 46 pages — writing advice books I’ve read in some time (click either on the link or cover image to purchase at Amazon.). It’s especially valuable to those of us who are perfectionists, either by nature or training or a mix of the two. (I think most of us get a little of both along the way. Or perhaps the training reinforces the nature?) It’s also a nice introduction to thinking about writing in terms of a business pursuit as much as an art or craft.

The business side of writing is an area I’ve only recently begun to explore, so I won’t at this point talk too much about trying to tackle the business side of freelance writing. That area is regrettably one I’ve cast aside for far too long and have much to learn.

On the nature side of things, I think some of my perfectionistic tendencies might be rooted in psychological fears about money learned at an early age and reinforced in later life by negative experience and accepting some myths about writing, myths Rusch explores in the book. I wonder how many of you have had similar backgrounds when dealing with money and business education?

What I want to concentrate on in this review are some of the myths Rusch brings up. In particular, myths from the world of the MFA in creative writing. Now, I sheepishly admit there’s a bit of me — the ego protecting me — still touchy about not getting into an MFA program when I entered graduate school eons ago, so I tend to get a bit giddy about critiques of MFA programs in general. But, for me, I saw the MFA as a route to becoming a fiction writer — as a way other than publishing that validated my fiction as valuable. Isn’t either Stephen King or George Orwell who says writers write to get published because a publication is a validation of existence?

While I didn’t get into my school’s MFA program, I did get into its graduate program in English — barely. At least I would be around the MFAs, right? Maybe I could absorb some of those writers’ wisdom? (Of course, there are other reasons I went to grad school: I was deeply afraid of engaging with the real world. Fear is always a constant bugaboo, isn’t it?).

So, here is one paragraph from Rusch’s book that dug into my brain like a hungry worm:

Creative writing, so far as I can tell, is the only degree a student can get that doesn’t offer any study of how to make a career as a professional who makes her living at the craft described in the title of the degree. In fact, in most universities, creative writers are told from day one that they cannot make a living at their chosen profession.

And that’s just bullshit.

What hit me so much about this passage was that it seemed outside of being a scholar and teaching (whether in secondary schools or at colleges or universities) there was nothing offered of how my English degree could help me make a living. It wasn’t until I consulted a school counseling service for other issues that I even thought I could be an editor. Still, I had no idea how to go about becoming an editor. And for that matter, an editor of what?

Scholarship seemed to be for scholarship’s sake as getting a creative writing degree seemed to be for the sake of producing more MFAs. On the other hand, the journalism department at the other end of campus taught their students to be journalists. You learned how to get internships at a paper or radio or TV station. You learned marketable job skills.

There was also a sense in grad school that a career of some sort, that pursuing a profession was something of a betrayal of art or politics or even self. Now, this was the ’90s and I know now there are classes in editing, and degrees offered in technical and professional writing. So, things are changing. Maybe? But how many people are getting their MFAs just to get them?

Anyhow, this isn’t to disparage my graduate school experience: I learned great research skills, I read a lot of literary works that I had missed or avoided in my reading life and my critical thinking skills are stronger than say the average bear.

But, I’ve had to struggle with the cannot make a living at writing thing for a long time — about two decades. I would write stories and take two or three months and polish them to perfection then submit them to one or two usually non-paying literary journals or magazines, get them rejected and pretty much give up on them. I still go through this. I’ve brought my perfectionism to my journalism and to my fiction writing still.

It’s something I work through and hope to overcome. Some of it’s rooted in fear, which I think is part of the perfectionist’s nature. But, Reading Rusch’s book has helped even with that part of me, giving me a different way of thinking.

— Todd

 

Entering the Dark Republic: a review of D.L. Young’s Soledad

So, when I received my copy of D.L. Young’s debut novel, Soledad, it was right around the time the U.K. took leave of the European Union.

After that vote, there were some half-serious memes on social media calling for Texas’ exit from the U.S. As ridiculous as that sounds, as yahoo-ish as that sounds, there are not a few here in the state who wouldn’t relish the chance to revive in their minds the glory days of the Republic of Texas. There is/was, for instance, the notorious Republic of Texas movement in the 1990s, led by the now imprisoned Richard Lance McLaren, which claimed, among other grievances, the U.S. illegally annexed Texas in 1845.

Historically, Texas, as early as September 1836, just a few months after becoming a republic, sought annexation, but the Van Buren Administration wasn’t keen on it, fearing, in part, war with Mexico.  The U.S.’s westward expansion, and fears of British expansion and economic growth, prompted President John Tyler to promote Texas annexation in 1844, although that push, with much U.S. prompting, didn’t pass until 1845.

In the 90s, Secession appealed to a certain element rife with conspiracy and government hatred, in particular after the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco.

“The idea of nationhood appealed to many Texans,” Joe Nick Patoski wrote for Texas Monthly, while covering the McLaren standoff,  “and a movement was born.”

Most in the area of McLaren’s property at Davis Mountain Resort, Patoski reports, didn’t like McLaren much. Some offered to shoot him themselves if the DPS didn’t, others planned margarita parties if and when he was pronounced dead.

McLaren’s supporters, however, echoed his rhetoric, including a street preacher, W.N. Otwell, as Patoski reports, who said, “‘He’s the one who’s done the research,’ [Otwell] said. ‘We’re here because we’re interested in this, because we believe the New World Order has trampled our constitutional rights. It’s the Antichrist and the mark of the beast.’”

McLaren was and is still imprisoned in Amarillo, after a 1997 standoff with the Texas Department of Public Safety. In that standoff, two hostages were taken on McLaren’s property at the Davis Mountains Resort.

This strand of apocalyptic thinking is all too common among the ahistorical Secessionist types — with its nascent Tea-Party rhetoric too chillingly trumpeted in the rhetoric of Donald Trump and his followers, and its a strand of thinking Young carries forward in speculative excellence with his Soledad.

Young’s is a dystopian vision, a hellish republic divided against itself; it’s a what if of what Texas could be if these Secessionists succeeded, and an extended metaphor of what I fear the U.S. could become should the trumpeters take the stage this November.

Ostensibly, the novel tells the story of a “reader” Soledad Paz, a slave, whose drug-enhanced psychic abilities allow her to inform the brigand-businessman Flaco Guzman whether those who would do business with him are lying to him. Liars, of course, get shot in the head and their bodies dumped in the West Texas desert, a “meal for coyotes and vultures, like all the others who try to pull one over on the great and powerful Guzman.”

But the novel takes us beyond the already balkanizing republic, beyond a Mad-Max-esque adventure — spoiler alert: Soledad escapes into a wilderness of hate — and like Soledad herself, stares at our collective souls, sees things we can’t even see ourselves because we’re too blind or too wrapped up in rhetoric to see.

For me, the most chilling section of the novel is the set piece in Waco, when Soledad and those who have helped her escape Guzman, get captured by Christian fundamentalists who make current Islamic terrorists look like black-pajamaed Boy Scouts, “the thousands of well-armed zealots who don’t like strangers” and “have a special hate for outsiders, anyone who’s not a baptized, Bible-carrying, true believing Fundie.”

These are the kind of people who weave the divine into every detail of history, much like the McLaren bunch, much like the conservative evangelicals blowing their shofars for Trump or Cruz and lamenting the loss of God in their fantasy Christian nation. The uber-patriots wrapped in flags, an AR-15 in one hand and a Bible in the other. They spew the wrath of God, rather than the Sermon on the Mount. They shout down opposition and claim persecution at the slightest slight.

In the novel, this group commits one of the most chilling atrocities, one we’ve seen or heard about, the kind of thing we associate with Islamic terrorists: a woman buried up to her neck and stoned to death for being a heathen (a Catholic in this case). Young depicts this stoning with ferocious detail, as if it’s something he actually witnessed.

One fortunate thing about Young’s dystopic vision, is that as Margaret Atwood has noted, “[W]ithin each dystopia [is] a hidden utopia, if only in the form of the world as it existed before the bad guys took over.”

Of course, as Atwood says, in each utopia there is a concealed dystopia, and perhaps Soledad will, instead, reach for some sensible middle ground, and not try to make things perfect, only better.

— Todd

Review: The Inexplicables

Usually, I try not to read a book that’s in the middle of a series before I’ve read all the books before it, but with Cherie Priest’s The Inexplicables, I made an exception. (It’s the fourth volume in her so far five-volume Clockwork Century series.) I was lured in by the cover, the intriguing portrait of a punkish redhead wearing a gas mask (yes, I bought a book for its cover). I also was lured by the back-cover synopsis. How could a book about narcotics, toxic walled cities, undead and other monsters be bad?

And, I wasn’t wrong. Sometimes you can judge a book by it’s cover. The Inexplicables delivers everything it claims in its cover synopsis: a rousing adventure in altered 1880s toxic, walled Seattle, a place where walking dead rotters roam the streets, the opiate sap is a fix for its residents and something inexplicable and hairy chases after young orphans. Or at least one orphan, Rector “Wreck’em” Sherman, the drug-addled redhead who seeks his fortune and maybe his next fix within the walled city.

His leap into adulthood includes an encounter with a monster, known in the beginning, as The Inexplicable, an oversized humanoid creature on the loose inside the city walls. In Rector’s quest to find his way in this bizarre world, he hooks up with an even stranger cast that includes an Indian princess and an airship crew.

For much of the book, the adventure hinges on Rector and gang trying to find The Inexplicable. They are interrupted in a secondary task, trying to stop a band of outsiders from blowing up the city. To me, this subplot tends to take over and the search for the monster takes a disappointing side quest. I wanted to know more about the creature, once it’s discovered

Still, it’s a fun read, and a nice introduction not only to Priest, but for me to steampunk, an SF genre I had mostly avoided, other than admiring steampunkish costumes at cons. Priest uses a lush, vivid prose to make this world come to life and I’m looking forward to working my way back to the first novel in the series, Boneshaker. She also manages to work in references to previous books in the series without distractions. A nice technique for those writing series.

— Todd

Review: Scalzi locks readers in with ‘Lock In’

In this near-future thriller, John Scalzi blends his fast-paced science fiction with suspense to yield a vivid world in which a portion of the human population is locked inside itself as a result of an insidious disease, known as Haden’s syndrome.

Technology has advanced enough — primarily through research for a disease cure  — those who suffer with the disease can live virtually by integrating their consciousness into other willing (mostly) human “Integrators” or hooking into androids known as “threeps” (yes, it is an allusion to that android).

Newly minted FBI agent Chris Shane (a Haden’s victim) partners with veteran Leslie Vann and the two wind up investigating Haden-related murder, following a suspect who might have been integrated with a Haden. The investigation is pretty standard, or as standard as the world Scalzi presents, given the murder suspect lives inside another human being, but only temporarily.

While transferring human conscious is a standard SF trope — one that Scalzi explores in his Old Man’s War series as well — Scalzi does a bang-up job making the technology plausible, especially a consciousness transfer into an android. With the novel, like all good SF, or all good fiction for that matter, Scalzi puts forth the questions of “What is human? What is it to be human?” Are the threeps human? They only seem to come to life when a human consciousness occupies them. Are you fully human if you allow another consciousness to temporarily possess your mind?

Although not quite as mindbending as his Hugo-winning Redshirts, Lock In supplies you with a good mystery story wrapped in the questions of future technologies.

— Todd

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Other related books you might want to purchase and read:

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The Martian: A review

So, I must admit I am apparently the only person — at least on this planet — who hasn’t seen The Martian on the big screen, but I’ve finally jumped on the bandwagon and read the book.* (A nice review of the movie by Melinda Snodgrass is here. She reviews the movie and book and includes some of George R.R. Martin’s commentary about book/movie adaptation. I’ve written some about book/movie adaptation in a review of Sideways.)

Like most readers, I loved book. It’s the kind of SF I think even Sad Puppies might enjoy, given it has space ships and white guys sciencing the shit out of stuff. It does, I suppose hearken back to classic SF — whatever that is.

But, its appeal is Mark Watney’s voice and the gallows humor Andy Weir has bestowed on Watney’s character. (It almost seems as if Weir had Matt Damon in mind as he was developing Watney’s voice. Of course, that could simply be the hazard of reading a novel when a movie is out that makes the voice sound like Damon’s. Or could it be Matt Damon lives inside my head?)

The book also serves as a really good study of keeping the tension flowing in a story, although there are moments when you want Weir to let up a little, and maybe let someone have a picnic at a peaceful beach or something.

For a non-science guy like me, the science in it is readable and I have to commend Weir on that. Given he has a science background — computer science — I’m pretty sure he knows how to science the shit out of stuff, or at least research enough to make the science sound plausible. The science even got Neil deGrasse Tyson approval, and that’s no small feat.

So, read the book. It’s good fun. And eventually, I will launch out at some point to see the movie.

— Todd

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*Editor’s note: I hope you will consider buying the book through this Amazon link. While I don’t want to be too agressive of a marketer, I would also like to monetize this blog a little. Thanks for your support.

 

Review: The Flicker Men by Ted Kosmatka

Until I read his The Flicker Men, I had only known of Ted Kosmatka through his short fiction in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Asimov’s. Now that I’ve read The Flicker Men, I’m glad I’ve met Ted in long form.

This SF-thriller drops faith and science into the pit with the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t universe of quantum physics wherein a washed out scientist, Eric Argus, replicates a double-slit experiment that lights up some alternate realities and potentially threatens the universe. At the same time, the experiment gains the attention of nefarious forces that include a televangelist bent on using Argus’s work to prove souls exist and what I would say were pan-dimensional beings. These forces pursue Argus and attempt to destroy his work and him before the whole of reality runs completely amok, if it hasn’t already.

Kosmatka’s style — his driving short sentences — hammers narrative forward. And he’s such a crafty storyteller, he’s able blend a complicated field of science into the narrative without relying heavily on infodumps.