Sunday, August 14, 2016

Life on the edge: Random thoughts on mountains and manuscripts

If I had one talent as a mountaineer, it was the complete absence of a voice in my head telling me to be afraid of the edge. I have zero fear of falling and an absolutely unfounded belief in my own sense of balance.
The view of Steven's Canyon (and my boots) from Faraway Rock, Mount Rainier. Photo by the author.
Maybe I am stretching my metaphor too far, but my brain's absolute refusal to be afraid of falling has mostly served me well in both the life outdoors and at the typewriter. I have climbed plenty of mountains that were beyond my actual abilities as a climber just because I was too dumb to notice, and I have attacked many a story that other writers might shy away from out of fear that they would fall into the canyon of cliche.

Writing Howard Carter was a bit of a high wire act. Every plot element, every theme I was exploring had long ago been cast in bronze as a science fiction trope. I had a list of them that I wanted to use ranging from the freeze ray to the boy genius and as I ticked each of them off the list, I knew I was walking a ledge and in danger of my story plummeting to its death.

My newest Work In Progress actually, honestly, scares me in a way that actual cliffs do not. It's not because I've never written anything in this vein before, but because the path through the world of mysteries and thrillers is so well trod and the cliches so numerous that there are cliffs on every side and new ones opening before me with each previous one I successfully traverse.

That might be overselling it a little, but I'm not sure that the same couldn't be said for everything we write.

As authors, we live in a world where all the mountains have been climbed before. There aren't many 'first ascents' left for us to assay. So we walk in the footsteps of those who came before us and try to be aware of the anchors that they set along the path; some of them are solid and secure and we would be fools to ignore them while others are set in crumbling stone and we trust them at our peril.

It's an imperfect metaphor and I don't climb mountains as much as I used to, but I've been spending a lot of time thinking about it recently as I laced my literal boots and set out through the meadows and valleys of Western Washington.

Unlike writing, mountaineering is often (but not always) a team sport. And it's here that my metaphor has the greatest chance of falling apart completely. In mountaineering, of course, you take precautions involving ropes and anchors and companions who will either point out that you're being an idiot or they will feed you more rope.

Writers are mostly solo artists, but I think most, if not all of us, have that First Audience. For Howard Carter, I threw it out there for anyone who reads this blog to see and invited the world to point out when my footing was uncertain and I should back away from the ledge.

In writing, you anchor your story in the truth of the scene and at the other end of the rope is your audience's faith in you. No matter how the tropes and cliches blow and circle you and attempt to knock you off the ridge, you cling to the truth of your scene and rely on your First Reader(s) to let you know if you're doing okay and feeding you more rope, or you're being an idiot and should turn back and try another route.

Either way is fine, I'm not afraid of falling and I don't mine living life on the edge as long as I have someone I trust not to let go of the rope.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Next Book

News: The new book I am working on is not a Howard Carter book. There will be more Howard Carter stories, of course. They seem to occur randomly in my head and I can't contain them so those who enjoy them will find more to enjoy in the future. But the next novel will be something else entirely.

I hope you're willing to go with me on this journey because I find that I cannot live by farce alone.

One of the things that interests me about writing is how books and writing facilitate the nearly-magical transmission of ideas from my head to yours. I've worked in every aspect of this industry from the pressroom to the author's desk and there are no bits of it that I am not passionately intrigued about, even if I don't want to earn my living doing them every day.

During NaNoWriMo this year, I took the opportunity to explore that a little and I think I'm on to something, a story which will allow me to fuse my passion for history with my love of the written word.

My passion for the written word has taken me down some very strange roads and into some wonderful friendships. I've been in rare book archives and breathed the air of previous millennia and held the weight of cuneiform tablets.

All this gave rise to a desire to write about it and breathed life into a character who is a paleographer, someone who studies ancient writings. Jordan Elias is her name and her adventures will preoccupy most of my writing time this year, and this blog will track some of the research I'm doing to breathe life into her character and her world.

Speaking of Jordan, the characters I'll be using aren't new to me. They've been around awhile and I've tried at various times to get them into print. The closest I ever came to getting an agent was with these characters and only the imposition of Howard "Very Silly Book" Carter sidetracked me from pursuing their story. I've had a lot of fun with Howard and, as I said, he's neither gone nor forgotten, but I very much want these stories which predate his escapades to see the light of day.

The setting this time will be modern-day Seattle and London. There will be libraries. There will be books. There will be intrigue. I'm looking at what I wrote during NaNoWriMo as well as the various drafts the original stories trying to find the story I want to focus on finishing and selling this year.

I have a feeling this one will come together fairly quickly.

In the meantime, I commend to your attention this talk Neil Gaiman gave at the Long Now Foundation (via Brainpicker) to be well and truly worth an hour and 43 minutes of your time. If you have any interest at all in how the stories live and breathe in our midst and the methods of how they are conveyed across the years.

Friday, October 23, 2015

NaNoWriMo: A Significant Wordcount Event Is Imminent

(for unofficial use only)

Open Memo from the Department of Literary Security

All Departments & Interested Parties
RE: Literary Alert Level Tango

We have been monitoring internet traffic on sites frequented by wordsmiths, and literary agents provacateurs from the Office of Letters & Light and are reporting an uptick in chatter related to writing nonstop for a month and the hoarding of items related to same.
We can only conclude that a Significant Word-Count Event (SWCE) is imminent. All writers are advised to shelter in place or seek out the nearest library or coffee shop. During the last SWCE, over 3 billion words erupted from the nation's writers and worldwide shortages of coffee, pastries, and adjectives were reported.


During moments of extreme literary unrest, the department advises that it can take up to thirty (30) days for emergency supplies to reach affected areas. All writers are advised to stock up on necessary supplies and foodstuffs sufficient to sustain life and word counts unaided for thirty (30) days without resupply. 

Our experts have prepared the following list of suggested supplies for all writers:
  1. A comfy place to sit or stand in a place conducive to surviving 30 unbroken days of writing.
  2. Coffee, tea, hot cocoa, or coffee.
  3. Sustainable levels of baked goods.
  4. Vegetables for when you are feeling guilty for trying to survive entirely on items 2 and 3.
  5. Writing implements to fit your age, milieu, or chosen level of pretense.
  6. Ink for pens, printers, copiers, goose quills (see item #5).
  7. Phone numbers of out-of-area contacts willing to take late-night phone calls when you are stuck, overwhelmed, or procrastinating.
  8. A padlock to secure the off-switch for the internet for most of the duration of the emergency.
  9. A supportive and/or tolerant spouse, family member, roommate, significant other, good friend, complete stranger you thought you knew but turned out you didn't but who gives surprisingly good advice on dialogue.
  10. A sense of humor.
  11. Additional items, medications, &c. may be added as needed for the individual. Good luck and may the spirit of those who came before guide you in this time of trial.
The department will monitor the situation and report developments via the usual channels as events warrant.

See you in December.
Regards, etc.

Scott W. Perkins
Unofficial Secretary of Literary Security

Attachment: Scanned poster of this memo for sharing.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

My book's published, now what? (Or: I don't know how to Author)

I know how to write. I can assemble word pictures and put you behind the eyes of a stranger. I can plot and scheme and plan and create imaginary friends. I know how to introduce you to my imaginary friends. I know how to find words and assemble them one after another with a beginning, middle, and end.  I can sit alone in a room for hours and crowd it with events and people only I can see until you read my words and then you can see them too.

These are my core skill sets.

I know how to be a writer.

I don’t know how to be an author.

That’s the first time I’ve admitted that out loud.

A lot of people think those are the same thing. They are not. They are, in many ways, diametrically opposed. I know that with a force that is sickening and gut-twisting, and it scares me.
Writing is an endeavor of inward exploration and laughing at your own jokes and falling in love with your imaginary friends as you send them on adventures. Writing is in many ways a ticket to Narnia[1].

Authoring is writing plus deadlines, hustling, selling, promotion, hype, contracts, covers, editing, contacts, networking, and not working. It’s gutting your story from 80,000 words to less than ten so you can convince someone to read it between floors on an elevator. It’s likening yourself to authors more successful, better known, and marketable because if you’re seen as being “Like Douglas Adams if he wrote Ender’s Game” you’re more likely to sell a book. To sell yourself.

And it’s hard. It’s so hard. Worse, it’s erosive to the parts of you can sit alone in rooms drinking coffee with people who aren’t there as you listen to their Munchausen-like tales of derring do. Worse, selling your book must be paired with some level of selling yourself and there's a fine line between selling your self and selling out. And where that line is no one knows. 

Selling out is like pornography: we can't define it but we know it when we see it.

I know. I know. It's the first worldiest of first world problems, and I thought… no, I was afraid that I was the only person who felt that way. And I feared it would doom my authorship to failure no matter how successfully I wrote.

This weekend at NerdCon: Stories, I sat in an auditorium as a man who is arguably the world’s reigning king of the YA novel said “In many ways, the person I am when creating the work is the opposite of the person I have to become when promoting it.”

If you came here hoping for answers, I don't have one. I think there isn't one because everyone comes at it from different directions and either finds their own way forward or doesn't. And that sucks because we want directions. But if John Green doesn't know how to answer the question or balance the erosive forces either, at least I know that I'm not alone.

And if all else fails, hell with it. I still have a ticket to Narnia.

As I digest the stories from NerdCon: Stories, I'm sure the rest of my thoughts on this subject will begin to leak out. But for now, I'm content and I'm energized, and I'm afraid. 

And it's good to be a little afraid. The best things happen out on the edge of the cliff where falling is a very real possibility. Fear keeps you awake, aware, and alive.


[1]  This is one of the reasons I have so much trouble imagining writing dystopian fiction. No offense to those who do, but my wardrobe doesn’t go there because I don’t want to go there.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Nerdcon: Stories, On the importance of stories

My dad was a storyteller. I wouldn't call him a raconteur because he hated speaking to more than one person at a time, but my God could he spin a yarn. If you took a sample of my dad and examined them under a microscope, I suspect that you'd see cells sitting around telling each other stories. More than anyone I've ever known, he was made of words.

This fact made it strangely easy to put my thoughts about losing him into words. I spoke at the funeral and wrote elaborate notes to thank those who helped mom and supported us as we mourned. I couldn't begin to do that in the wake of mom's death. Partly, I think this was because it was so sudden and unexpected compared to his long fight against cancer. But for the most part, it's because stories were dad's lifeblood but mom was a creature of pure feelings.

Nevertheless, I was adrift after my dad died. I didn't stop telling stories, but they changed in ways that were perceptible to me and I was a long time coming to terms with it. I was uncomfortable with this new facet of my life and how it was manifesting in the tales I wanted to tell and how I was telling them.

What does this have to do with Nerdcon: Stories?

If you've read the acknowledgements page of Howard Carter Saves the world, you'll have seen this:
John & Hank Green don’t know it, but they and the Nerdfighters helped me through a dark time. Their efforts to encourage peace and empathy in the world and to form a support community for those who are not chosen first, kids who are mocked, scared, or live in fear of themselves are laudable and should be supported. In recognition, a portion of the author’s proceeds* from this novel will be donated to their Foundation to Decrease Worldsuck. Learn more about how you too can support their efforts at and Don’t forget to be awesome.
When I wrote that, I had no intention of really explaining it. But events have changed around me. Of course, the death of my father was the dark time I was talking about, but I'm not sure I can fully explain the way that John and Hank helped me through it.

Being somewhat attuned to the memetic culture of the web, I'd been aware of the Vlogbrothers pretty much since they started, but only as a peripheral thing.

As a former YA bookseller, I had a lingering professional interest in John Green as the author of Looking for Alaska but I can't say honestly that I spent much time digging into the philosophical basis of his work. When my dad died, that changed and Green's message of empathy and imagining the complex lives of others suddenly sank in. The idea of telling stories as a means rather than an ends wasn't groundbreaking, but it was amazing to watch someone doing it, live on the internet.

And thus the method and mode of my storytelling changed again.

That's a profound effect to have in someone's life. Because I am a storyteller like my father before me. If you examined me under a microscope, you'd find my cells drinking coffee and trying to top one another with a funnier story. To inject a new and serious note into that conversation was shocking for me.

And over the course of their rambling conversations recorded on their YouTube channel, I was progressively, night by night, rattled me out of the funk and began charting a new course. Which led to Howard Carter.

And because I support their larger charitable mission, it's a profound effect that inspired a likeminded effort on my part.

As previously noted, Howard Carter is a very silly but pointed anti-cynical manifesto. It's about optimism, yes, but it's also about doing the hard thing. It's about trusting one generation to strive to do better than those who stood in their places the last time. It's about not shoving our duties onto the next poor sap to come along. And succeed or fail, it's about the subtle heroism of making the right choice in the face of rampant cynicism that all is for naught.

It's about planting a flag somewhere and defiantly insisting that we are not, in fact, doomed to repeat the mistakes of the previous cycle of humanity.

Whether I succeeded or not, that's where I've been. And some of you have come along for the ride.

On Thursday, I will fly to Minneapolis to attend the first ever Nerdcon: Stories. Put on by the crew that Hank Green assembled to create VidCon, the YouTube creator's conference, Nedcon is a conference/convention that's about the power of storytelling and the important nature of the stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves.

Some exciting Big Names will be there, but I'm not going to meet the big names or even John and Hank. I'm going to support the mission as a volunteer and participant at the conference. Because more importantly, our stories will be there and I will be among these storytellers assembling on the Minnesota plains to discuss how stories make us human and how we can do it better.

So I'll be spending the week swimming in words and maybe I will return with a few in my teeth, reliable old dog that I am.

Have a good week, friends.


*By the way, for the first year of publication, that percentage is half, but that's another post.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

How I spent my summer vacation... and why I never came back

On July 3rd, my birthday, I hung up from a phone call with my mother in Missouri. She was in the hospital recovering from a surgery that had gone well. The surgery had been unexpected, cancer had been detected only the day before and was understandably a little weepy. She had reminisced about the day 42 years previous when she had held her baby son and now I was two thousand miles away and she didn't even have a teddy bear to hold on my birthday.

She told me she loved me. I told her her the same. After a lifetime as the difficult child, we had long ago come to terms with ourselves and each other and had developed a great, warm, relationship. 

I already had a plane ticket to depart for home a week later. I'd be there to take care of her as she convalesced and for a bit after. I even went out and bought her a teddy bear to take with me.

For the past few years and especially since my dad died, I've made a point of getting home at least once a year. A previously-planned trip home that was originally going to involve wandering the streets of my hometown with a video camera to show you, my loyal readers, the town that filtered through my subconscious to became Howard Carter's Sedville.

I had a plan, you see.

As John Lennon said, life is what happens while you're making other plans. Because life -- even your life -- is not really about you.

It was the last coherent conversation I ever had with my mother.

A text from my sister alerted me that something had gone wrong. Stand by. She's had a brain aneurysm. She's being put on a helicopter and flown to Saint Louis. Get on a plane. Now.

Those were the longest days of my life, full of hurry up and stand still. Airports. Hospitals. Waiting rooms. Intensive Care. Moments of lucidity when she told us she was afraid. Told us she loved us. Asked us to sing hymns for her. Hugs from nurses. Terrifying medical procedures undertaken by increasingly desperate-sounding physicians in one of America's finest centers for neurological trauma. Moments of exhausted unconsciousness in waiting room chairs that could only charitably be called sleep.

In the early morning of July 11th, we lost our battle to keep her with us. 

The doctors and nurses wept with us at her bedside. 

She was that kind of lady.

Her last words to me were "I love you."

She was that kind of lady.

After that, it was opening safe deposit boxes, bizarre meetings with lawyers and funeral homes and florists, choosing from the many who offered to be pallbearers, talking to ministers and local dignitaries, and realizing as the well wishes and casseroles came in just how big the ripples were from my mother's death.

And I haven't felt much like writing since.

There are so many things I'd planned to do with her. So many somedays that I thought were ahead, and the crushing fact of the matter is: today is always someday.

So, I'm back or will be, as I slowly and carefully walk through the shut-off wing of my mind where the writing comes from, turning on the lights, taking the dustcovers off the furniture, and fishing around in the couch cushions for the lost thoughts and dreams that I let fall when the call came in.

Just because life is what happens while we're making other plans doesn't mean we stop making plans; it means we realize that today is the someday we were looking for and everything we put off until now has come due.


My mother, my sister, and I discussing a Thanksgiving turkey. I love this photo.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Happy Birthday to me, here's a present for you!

Hello, Internet!

Well, it's my birthday, which usually means I get you a gift. Usually, it's a free short story. This year's gift, though, is that I've asked my publisher to put my book, Howard Carter Saves the World on sale! For this week, Howard can be had for the low, low price of $0.99 (99p if you're in the UK)!

Tell your friends. If you've been meaning to read it and just haven't gotten around to it, now would be an excellent time.

A present you have to pay for doesn't seem like much of a present, though, does it?

I may or may not wear a fedora
while signing. Salsa not included.
You're right! There's more! But it's my birthday, so I need something from you in return.

Buy Howard Carter Saves the World and post a photo of yourself holding it up with the cover visible on social media and tag me (details below).  The first 100 who do so, I will contact for their deets and mail an autographed card featuring one of my original illustrations.

Already bought the book? You can participate too!

Sorry, offer is currently open to readers in the US and UK only. Offer expires July 31st.

For all those who asked me how e-authors can sign their books, this is how.

Places you can upload your photo and tag me where I will see it: 

Facebook: ScottPerkinsWrites
Twitter: @pages2type
Instagram: @swalkerperkins
Tumblr: pages2type
Google+: ScottTypesUntilDawn

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Toilet Squirrels, inspired by true events

There once was a guy in a little blue car. It was a sunny morning and he had a winding road, the wind in his hair, and a full cup of coffee. Life was good and he was happy...

Wait, I can't start there; that's the beginning of the story. No one starts at the beginning of the story anymore. Not since the ancient Greeks did away with that sort of thing.[1] This is a modern story of terror, of the harsh realism of modern life and the fragile underpinnings that anchor our society. It’s a tale of grief and woe and it should begin at the darkest moment, preferably during the high point of the action.

We'll start again.
There once was a goblin named Thistlepin who loved his job just a bit too much.
Yes, a goblin, shut up.
On this particular day, this particular goblin was bored. It was a slow day and not much was happening at and like all bored creatures since the invention of the internet, Thistlepin was taking selfies and posting them on Instagram. 
That’s when the red light on its console began to flash.

FLASH FATE TRANSMISSION MESSAGE BEGINS>>>>  > Instagram user ‘swalkerperkins’ has ceased posting pictures of > cats and food and dared to post a selfie in his little car.
> Has declared unapproved moment of contentment.
> > Did not knock on wood or suitable substitute.
> > Take appropriate action.
> >  

Thistlepin chortled a gobliny chortle[2] and opened a window on its browser.
There was swalkerperkins, mugging for the camera. He had a shaggy beard and hipster glasses. He looked the sort who would tempt Fate. The sunroof of his little car was open and a blown-out sky beyond the open roof betokened a sunny day and little skill at cell phone photography.

          In the twenty-first century, physical manifestations of psychic phenomena don’t get a lot of respect. Every day in the modern world, Death was cheated, Time wasted, War averted, Nature tamed, and Fate tempted. Only Fate, though, had the goblins to get hers back.
Thistlepin was one of her best.
He was the cleverest, the most devious, and the most devoted to punishing those who tempted Fate’s wrath. Death, Time, War, and the rest were constantly trying to hire him away with promises of salary and all the garbage he could eat, but Thistlepin was a company goblin and Fate made sure her star player wanted for nothing.
Thistlepin called up the poor sap’s dossier. A week previously, the guy had posted another in a series of too-long blog posts about how deplorable it was that the world had forgotten how to dream optimistic dreams. He liked the movie Tomorrowland. His favorite song from The Who was Boris the Spider. His house was painted yellow. The car with the open sunroof was a blue Mini Cooper named Sweetie.
The guy was practically begging for it.
The goblin pondered the smug mug and carefully cracked each of the thirty-six knobbily green knuckles as it planned a diabolical plan. Finally, the cracked black lips drew back to reveal a rictus grin. This would require a comeuppance of unparalleled uppance.
Thistlepin fished the chain around its neck out of the front of his dirty white tee shirt and inserted it in a keyhole on the console that hadn’t been used in so long that it squealed as the knotty green hand forced the key to turn.
Lights lit, klaxons wailed, wood knocked, and on Earth a squirrel crawled into the exhaust pipe on the roof of a small yellow house on an island somewhere off the coast of Washington state.


Scott was depressingly good at what computer programmers and science fiction authors call pattern recognition. When a picture of numbers crawled across his social media newsfeed challenging him to spot the 6 among the 8’s, he never reposted because it felt too simple a puzzle. He grew up on a steady diet of Highlights puzzles and Sesame Street rhymes about one thing being nothing like the others. He excelled at find-a-word puzzles and the spot-the-difference pictures on the back page of the Sunday comics.
When he opened the toilet lit, he wanted his brain to refuse to accept a shape that was quite clearly a squirrel but his brain wasn’t having any of it. His brain didn’t reject patterns it found familiar no matter how much he begged it to.
Maybe someone forgot to flush the toilet.
Turd. Obviously.
It's a squirrel.
Over time water and waste can sculpt strange shapes.
Including a bushy tail?
Look, it’s brown!
With a reddish chest and tiny paws?
Maybe someone needs to see a doctor?
You do if you think that’s anything other than a squirrel.
Well, at least it’s dead.
He’d lost track of which voice was which.
Scott mentally redacted every expletive he could think of.
He lowered the lid and walked out of the room.
From the kitchen came a muffled answer that sounded like “What?”
“Why is there a squirrel in the toilet?”
His wife’s hands are at her side. The look on her face is not a good one.
“There’s a squirrel,” he said. “In the toilet.”
She went and checked. Because this is apparently a story that people tell. A joke. A jape. A prank. Some sort of… squirrel.
His brain gave up making excuses. There was a dead squirrel in his toilet.
“You are taking care of that,” she said. “And can I say how glad I am that I’m not the one who found it?”
Because even in enlightened 21st century households, there are boy jobs and there are girl jobs. Either that, or as an MBA candidate, his wife had taken on the lessons about delegating jobs to fit candidates to guide their professional growth.
Besides, she wasn’t the one who tempted Fate.
He thought he heard a gobliny cackle.
His wife went into the library and he went to the bedroom to change. What do you wear to fish a squirrel out of a toilet? Not work clothes, certainly.
He put on canvas dungarees and an old teeshirt and wandered into the library to find his wife on the computer with the Google open on the screen. The internet was singularly unhelpful.
The normally reliable “Straight Dope” forum was already there with the aspiring stylings of the North American Itinerant Internet Humorist. A user named Polycarp summoned this gem from the back row of a high school physics classroom:

It's Schrödinger's Squirrel. At all times and places, there is an infinitesimally small but non-zero chance that a macroscopic object such as a squirrel will coalesce out of zero-point enerhy. You drew the short straw.  Just be glad it wasn't a moose.”                            “Polycarp” (Guest user) Straight Dope Message Boards
How Did a Squirrel Get In My Toilet? (discussion thread)
Accessed 9 June 2015, 9:25 pm

When he wasn’t tempting Fate, Scott was a science fiction author of a strange bent and that explanation pleased him on some perverse level even as it lit up some hitherto unnoticed dark corners of his imagination.
Terrific,” Scott thought. “Now I have to worry about a toilet moose.
That’s what he thought.
To himself.
No man gets credit for speaking that kind of thing out loud, and he’d been married long enough to know that. His outside voice said “Do they say how to get it out of the toilet?”
She checked again.
“No.” She paused. “Gloves?”
“I am not touching that thing.”
“Maybe the fireplace set has tongs…”
Scott tried to banish the fact that his world had expanded to include toilet mammals as a genus/species combo as he lined an orange Home Depot bucket with trash bags. The log lifter tongs made short work of the tiny furry corpse and he flushed the toilet.
Thistlepin whispered in his wife’s ear and she came running into the room to deliver the coup de grace.
“Oh my God, you didn’t flush it did you?”
“No,” he said. “No, I’m not that crazy.”
He tied a knot in the sack and headed outside.
“Dinner’s cancelled. Eat whatever you want; I don’t think I’m going to feel up to food tonight.”
As he headed outside, dead toilet squirrel in hand, he chanted quietly to himself over and over, It could have been worse, at least it wasn’t a moose.

[1] Not since the Greeks invented the "cold open" for their iconic dramas featuring the recurring hero Ἰάκωβος πέδη.  This innovation allowed them to show the hero smashing the Kakos syndicate before they went to the bother of showing him meeting their leader, cheating at baccarat, or wooing his bride. They also invented the little known speculatori ex machine but the Romans stole it and claimed it as their own. Bloody Romans.
[2] The goblin was required to chortle. It was in the handbook. A good gobliny chortle was a prerequisite for Fatework.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Dreamers: Disenchanted with dystopia...

Last week, I discovered that Brad Bird and Damon Lindelhof made a movie just for me. It was an old-fashioned sort of movie, with an old-fashioned message of hope. Yes, it was a little preachy, but it's a sermon worth hearing and I loved it unabashedly from its goofy vacuum cleaner jet pack to its steampunk rocket to another dimension.

It wasn't just optimistic, it was anti-cynical. As we've come to expect from Brad Bird, it was practically utopian, but in a practical way.

I must be honest with you: as a general rule, dystopia bores the snot out of me.

It's not that dystopian stories should not be told, but by dwelling solely on the inevitability of decline, we've shot ourselves in the collective foot as a literary movement and as a society.

There are dystopian stories that need to be told and certainly valid uses of the milieu. I haven't had a chance to see Fury Road yet, but the cultural conversation it spawned is evidence that dystopian futures still have the power to make us think about the dystopian now. And science fiction does and should have a role to play in warning us of the future consequences of current trends. All the same, I feel deeply and personally that we took a wrong turn somewhere.

I really want to blame the "Same but different" approach that publishing and Hollywood takes whenever something is successful. Katniss's adventures in the Land Beyond Running Man means that we're going to spend awhile feeding fictional kids into a futuristic meat grinder whether we like it or not. Just as the success of the first Avengers has doomed us to a hundred 'shared world' movie franchises and team-ups, we're also staying far too long at the dystopian dinner party, wringing the last marketing dollar out of the genre until there's nothing left of it but a husk of post-apocalyptic cliches.

Lest you think I watched Tomorrowland and had an epiphany, I said almost those exact words in November 2011 shortly after finishing Howard Carter. Howard is aggressively anti-dystopian without ever venturing into utopian. Its story rests on the refutation that cycles are unbreakable. Its stance is pointedly and fearlessly anti-fatalist.

I tried very hard to walk the line between the two without betraying my central idea that the thing I miss most in modern science fiction is the sense of hope. Hope that children can make better choices than their parents. Hope that humanity can improve and change. Hope that the ingenuity of humanity can eventually triumph over the inhumanity of humanity.

Zombies are so over-done there's nothing left on the bone. The Dystopia became just another setting and more often than not these days, it seems to be another setting: Do I set this novel in post-apocalyptic wasteland or Belgium? Attacking the underlying set of assumptions that make these apocalypses feel inevitable is the bravest thing Bird and Lindelhof have done, and should garner them a much larger audience than the latest disaster flick, no matter how charming Dwayne Johnson might be.

I used to like dystopian stories for the same reason I used to be more enthusiastic about zombie movies: they meant something. These two semi-connected constructs were our muse for decades, an airing of inchoate fears about the state of the world and stark, if at times hyperbolic, warnings about our inevitable fate should we continue on our current path. Regional and economic inequities are given a harsh and satirical spotlight among the adventure elements of The Hunger Games. I haven't seen the movie yet, but the evocation of a feminine warrior element at the center of Mad Max: Fury Road has given rise to a valuable and ongoing societal debate around the gender assumptions that it leaves shattered in its wake.

But will its message of equality give rise to more? Or will its success give rise to a storytelling wasteland of tropes and cliches written on the back of a napkin by movie execs who cannot see past the dollar signs to the message that filled those bags with cash?

I fear the latter.

If you're with me and you too miss the idea that we should and can dream, and that positing futures should be at least as much about hoping for better tomorrows as it is foretelling doom, go see Tomorrowland.