Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Thuvia, Maid (or Murderess) of Mars — because everyone loves a girl with a gun

26 Apr

I’ve been having some serious fun with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s  “John Carter” series of the early 20th century lately (I’m on book three of eleven, and like the pioneers of old, it’s Mars or bust! or something).  But since I’ve already reviewed “A Princess of Mars” and kind of “The Gods of Mars,” it’s time to do something super exciting geared at all you history and art history majors out there: using book covers to reflect on persistent gendered and racialized themes throughout history!*  Yes!

* Disclaimer: Now that I am officially a doctoral student in American history I reserve the right to do textual analysis whenever the hell I want.  So let’s begin.

Before I started seeing lukewarm reviews for Disney’s “John Carter” movie a couple months ago, I didn’t know that the film (such as it is) was based on an early-20th century series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, prolific king of pulp sci-fi in the 19-teens, twenties, and beyond.  It seemed strange to me that Disney would be borrowing from a rather problematic book published in 1912, but hey, I didn’t know that musical, animated “Tarzan” was based on Burroughs either.

In any case, it was Spring Break and, being the kind of person who goes home for spring break to read books and play with her family’s cats, was bored.  Also kind of broke.  So it made sense to download free public domain books onto my kindle, and for laughs, John Carter seems to have potential.

I was very quickly obsessed with it.

Of course, being the kind of person who brings her copy of Judith Butler’s Gender Troubles home with her over Spring Break, I can’t help but share some of the interesting things I’ve noticed about women not just in the books–but especially on the book covers.

This is the cover for the first installment in the series, A Princess of Mars.  As you can see, the princess, being a proper Victorian lady (even if she is a Martian who lays eggs), spends most of her time cowering behind her hero.  And she loves it!  And he loves her!  And no one will ever question their respective femininity and masculinity, because, I mean, just look at them.

Most of the first three books deal with the princess, Dejah Thoris, being kidnapped and help captive–first by green alien monsters, then an enemy group of Martian “red men,” and then by evil black people who live underground in the pit of a volcano or something.  Do we sense a pattern emerging.  This is science fiction’s kind of icky extension of the American captivity narrative, possibly one of the first distinctly American literary genres.

Have you heard of Mary Rowlandson?  In 1676, she was taken captive by Wampanoag Indians for about 3 months.  You really have to feel bad for this woman–she watched her friends and family brutally murdered, and then was thrust into a society completely foreign (dare I say alien?) to her.  But like a good yankee lady, once she got out, she had her eye on the main chance.  Rowlandson published a wildly, spectacularly popular account of her captivity in 1682.

Now, for those who haven’t read it 4 or 5 times over the course of high school and college, Rowlandson’s narrative pretty much gets this point across: It’s all about God’s sovereignty.  Haters gonna hate, but God will do what God does.  And on and on.  Rowlandson was incredibly devout, and even during her captivity chose not to make any escape attempts, deciding that it was God’s will that she was there and she would wait for Him to deliver her.

Funny, then, how the second edition of her book included pictures like this one.  “A Female Soldier”?  With a rifle?  That’s not exactly what happened–actually, that’s not at all what happened–but the idea of a forceful, armed heroine seemed to gain some purchase with contemporary readers.

That pattern continued with the story of Hannah Duston, another colonial American woman taken captive by Native Americans in the late 17th century.  Duston didn’t have a gun, but she got her hands on a hatchet and the rest is history.  Really gruesome, bloody, Native American killing history.

People liked that story too.

And they still liked it when Burroughs was writing his second John Carter book, The Gods of Mars, in which readers were introduced to another woman with a weapon: Thuvia.

Like Dejah Thoris, Thuvia was a prisoner of all sorts of different and abhorrent “others.”  Unlike Dejah Thoris, Thuvia was not content to resign herself to fate and hope that her lover would rescue her.  Thuvia got a gun and shot her captor point-blank.  And then, over the course of the next two books, she saved John Carter’s book like half a dozen times.  Most notable example: when John Carter is condemned to die in a gladiatorial-style fight against a bunch of ravenous lion-like alien beasts, Dejah Thoris attempts to kill herself so that she might die with him.  Thuvia uses her animal mind-control powers to save him.  Again.  And when one of John Carter’s crazed fangirls (no really, this is absolutely true) tries to stab Dejah Thoris and steal John for herself (like that’s going to work), Thuvia saves Dejah Thoris too.

She’s super badass.  And four books in, she gets her own starring role with Thuvia, Maid of Mars.

Let’s note the word “maid.”  Especially in archaic and literary contexts, a “maid” is not just a young, unmarried girl–she’s a virgin.  Thuvia is getting a title treatment that would seem to indicate that she’s as pure and unsullied a princess as Dejah Thoris.  Meanwhile, she looms over the corpse of her victim with a bloody knife.  The entire book cover is made to look like it’s been smeared with blood.  And let’s not forget that her first kill was a man who, it was implied, may have, you know, violated her.

Pure?  That’s questionable.

But we’ve kind of had a literary love affair with women with knives and guns and machetes for a long time.  Since the 1600s at least.  And how American is that?

Top 5 Historical Americans Who Were Probably Vampires

24 Apr

Heroes and villains with secret identities are about as American as apple pie, teeth whitening, and fundamentalist Christianity–and these days (sadly enough) you can add sparkly vampires to that list too.  So with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter coming to the big screen in June (and oh, what fun we’ll have here then), it’s only natural to speculate about other historical figures who may have had their own supernatural secrets.  I’ve already written about fictional Lincoln and his flame gun, and zombie Henry David Thoreau, but as I sat in English this morning, dreaming about all the midday naps I’ll take after graduation, I began to compose a list of famous Americans who may not have burst into flames in the light but certainly had their vampiric qualities.

1. William Cullen Bryant

He was a 19th-century romantic poet.  He was a boy genius.  He wrote his masterpiece, “Thanatopsis” (Greek for “a view of death”) at age 17.  And look, just look at that face.  The collar, the cloak, the pallid skin and sinister smirk all point to one thing: he prowls the streets at night searching for blood.  In fact, I’m pretty sure he tells us that in his poem:

When thoughts

Of the last bitter hour come like a blight

Over thy spirit, and sad images

Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,

And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,

Make thee to shudder and grow sick at heart;–

Go forth, under the open sky, and list

To Nature’s teachings

In other words, feast on the blood of the innocent in the moonlight, friends, for tomorrow Lincoln’s coming for you with the hatchet he keeps under his stovepipe hat.

2. Edgar Allan Poe

Do you think it’s a coincidence that poets top this list?  It’s not.  And if we know one thing about Poe: he never met a stiff he didn’t like.  There’s a movie coming out about him too, you know, in which some super creepy groupie goes on a killing spree in which he (or she) brings all the gruesome deaths in Poe’s writings, shall we say, to life.

More likely explanation: Poe committed them all himself.  After all, as your teachers will tell you, write what you know.

Just look at those eyes.  Those are the eyes of a haunted man who’s seen eternity, and shrinks from it.

3. President James K. Polk

One of my history professors put this image on a powerpoint the other day, and you have to admit, Polk does look quite a bit like Lucius Malfoy.  If any of our past presidents were Slytherins, Polk definitely would have made the cut.  This is the man who imagined up a war with Mexico and made it happen for kicks.  (Or territorial expansion, one or the other.)

And lest we forget, Polk did have some tense run-ins with Lincoln during his presidency.  When Polk, licking his lips, thundered that Mexicans had “spilled American blood on American soil” (which they hadn’t, and which wasn’t), Lincoln was one with the “Spot Resolutions”–calling for Polk to identify just where exactly the blood had been spilled.

I’ll tell you where.  Into his wine glass, that’s where.

4. Laura Ingalls Wilder

Bet you didn’t expect this one, did you, eh?  Her Little House books are staples of childhood bedside reading.  But did you ever ask yourself, as your parents tucked you in at night, why the Ingalls were always moving West?  I mean, from the way she writes you’d think they had it pretty good in the big woods.

I’ll tell you why: Pa was a vampire.

People of the 19th century were not as accepting as we are today.  They wouldn’t have swooned in desire to see a vampire.  They would have staked him, like, immediately.  But Pa was a good guy.  I’m guessing that, of all of these American bloodsuckers, he was closest to the “vegetarianism” of the Cullen family.  The West was indeed a land of bounty: wild and full of wild game, Pa could feed without being tempted by human blood.  Because out there, the only humans for miles around were Ma, Mary, Laura, and Carrie, and eating them wouldn’t have been acceptable.

I’ll let you speculate as to why Pa called Laura “Half Pint.”

She herself seemed to take after her father more than her sisters, and while Mary would have gasped and fainted away should she have ever found out about her father’s true nature, I’m guessing Laura probably just shrugged it off.  And later, when she was grown, she probably asked him to turn her.

Why do you think the Little House books are so rife with nostalgia for a lost childhood and passing way of life?  The times she wrote about weren’t only her youth, they were her last years as a human.

5. Benjamin Franklin

You know him as the face on the $100 bill, the man people still think was president at some point, the guy who flew a kite in a lightning storm and lived to make a fortune off of it, and the name that keeps popping up in your history textbook at points long after you would have expected him to be dead.  He was everywhere!  He did everything!  In his old age he was a lecherous old man with a coterie of buxom French hotties!  And he didn’t give a shit.

*

That’s all for today, folks, but join me next time for a gendered interpretation of the cover art for Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter series!  Sounds fun, right?

Review: “To Say Nothing of the Dog” (plus, proof that the Victorians really, really loved their cats)

17 Apr

In the year 2057 — when getting a Ph.D. in history is a high-risk endeavor requiring mental and physical endurance, athleticism, a working knowledge of quantum mechanics and Victorian table manners, and, as always, a firm grasp of the Chicago Manual of Style — Ned Henry is a doctoral candidate on a mission. The stakes? If he fails, the Nazis win World War II. The operation? Return a time-traveling cat back to 19th-century Oxford.

For original article in the CW, click this eerie and vaguely misleading book cover! Because it's definitely not about ghost cats, flaming gothic architecture, or disembodied heads.

“To Say Nothing of the Dog” is a classic whodunit — if the “it” were causing an incongruity that could rip open the space-time continuum and destroy the universe, and the “who” were a snowy-white feline named Princess Juju.

Did I mention this is a comedy?

That’s the premise of Connie Willis’ “To Say Nothing of the Dog,” a delightfully bizarre literary commingling of sci-fi and historical fiction. And considering that the Large Hadron Collider didn’t result in black holes or time travel technology last year after all, for a novel written in 1997, the science-y parts of the plot hold up. Besides, since most of the action takes place in 1889, Google wouldn’t have done Ned Henry much good, anyway.

And as tangled as the timelines are, this is, essentially, what’s going on.

In 2057, the aptly named Lady Schrapnell is working on a massive project to rebuild Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in a Nazi air raid during WWII. And because “God is in the details,” she’s employing scads of time-traveling historians to go back in time and find out exactly what the cathedral looked like the night before its destruction.

All that’s left to replace is the Bishop’s Bird Stump, a hideously ugly Victorian flower vase that, according to an inconveniently waterlogged journal entry, changed the redoubtable aristocrat’s some-odd-great-great-grandmother’s life in the summer of 1889 (and thus absolutely must be reproduced in the new cathedral).

But the unthinkable has happened: It’s missing, along with that great-great-something-great-grandmother’s pet cat, both of whose disappearances might just have a domino effect leading to Hitler taking over the world (if the world survives the breach in the space-time continuum, that is).

To say nothing of our hero — Ned Henry is certainly no Indiana Jones. And when it comes to tracking down lost artifacts (or missing cats), he’s no Sherlock Holmes, either. But wearing his straw boater at a jaunty angle, Ned and his partner-in-historical-crime Verity Kindle (perfect name for a historian, right?) are ready to play croquet, host séances and, of course, save the world.

Hold onto your petticoats, ladies and gentlemen, and pay attention to your Western Civ professors — because some day the fate of the universe may depend upon you knowing your groats from your tuppence.

This here ends the book review.

But Now… More Victorian Cats! (or, the tangential stuff I didn’t put in the newspaper column)

Recently I purchased an item of clothing that unites two of my loves: cats and the long 19th century (yes, I am absolutely going to be a spinster historian animal hoarder when I grow up).  After seeing it, my eldest sister (who you may know from long ago posts as Kate the Lostie), who has already grown up to be something of a cat lady, sent me an article that reveals something Connie Willis must have known–Victorians really, and I mean really, did love their cats.

My Sweatshirt, circa 2012

And more Actual Historical LOLcats, circa 1870s (below)
But there are more! (photos from io9)
 

“A Princess of Mars” and John Carter, the Prince of Pulp Sci-Fi

20 Mar

Literally just minutes ago (as of this writing) I finished Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1912 novel “A Princess of Mars,” and I’m fairly convinced that it’s the best worst early-20th-century science fiction novel ever published. That should be no secret, considering that this book, the first in an 11-part series, was the inspiration for Disney’s recent movie (soon to be a flop), “John Carter.”

See how she cringes? That's how a real Victorian woman cringes.
(Click for the original column in the Crimson White)

Burroughs, an astonishingly prolific writer of the 20th century, gave us, among other iconic characters, Tarzan the jungle man, but you’re not likely to find him on the syllabus of an American literature course. If you’ve seen “John Carter,” that won’t be a big surprise: Burroughs’s writings, many initially published as magazine serials, are as pulpy as they come.

They’re science-fiction penny dreadfuls, dime novels with sensational and poorly-illustrated covers, cheap paperbacks you’d find on the counter at a seedy gas station and all-around the stuff sophisticated college-educated young people such as us would be embarrassed to be caught reading in the 1910s.  And to be perfectly honest, I should be embarrassed now. But, I’m three books in, and there’s no going back.

The story begins with Virginian ex-Confederate John Carter mining for gold in Arizona, running away from angry Apaches and hiding in a creepy cave filled with human skeletons. Admittedly, that doesn’t sound very promising.  But let’s fast-forward a chapter to his mysterious re-location to the planet Barsoom — what we, in our ignorance, call Mars.

Like the movie, “A Princess of Mars” has vicious aliens, epic battles and a giant monster dog named Woola.  But the novel is certainly a product of its time.  Occasionally this leads to questionable racial connotations (red men on the red planet) and cringe-worthy gendered characterizations (“I would rather stay and die with you, my chieftain!” or something). But at other times we find hilarious misunderstandings for the modern reader. For example, the chapter entitled “Lovemaking on Mars” includes nothing more scandalous than John accidentally grazing the bare shoulder of the Helium Princess. Steamy stuff.

Considering the time period and his icky military history, John Carter is a surprisingly sympathetic protagonist. He is, essentially, the classic hero of a Western, and Barsoom does look suspiciously like Arizona. The many times crypto-Victorian princess Dejah Thoris cringes behind him during a battle scene get annoying, I’ll admit, but by the second installment we have a much more active heroine: Thuvia, who protects her own honor quite adeptly by just shooting evildoers with Carter’s revolver.

The science is outdated, the romance is somewhat silly (Helium Princess, really?) and the writing is mannered, but we still read Jane Austen don’t we? We made “Twilight” a major franchise and eagerly await the return of “Game of Thrones” on HBO. I’ll go so far as to add that “Avatar,” with its Noble Savages and white hero, is quite like the John Carter books, and let’s not forget that “Avatar” came 97 years late to great critical acclaim.

“A Princess of Mars” and the rest of the John Carter books aren’t great literature, but even in 1912, they weren’t intended to be. Burroughs’s writing is fast-paced, entertaining, and readable today (not to mention the first three books are 99 cents digitally). If nothing else, they’re fun to make fun of. But I warn you, it’s not hard to get emotionally invested: When I turned the last virtual page on my Kindle, I was still holding my breath for the cliffhanger.

Of course, if you still feel you might be embarrassed reading “A Princess of Mars” and its sequels, just tell your critics that doing it … ironically.

Better Living Through Chemistry? (Book Review: Limitless, by Alan Glynn)

15 Nov

Put away your half-started manuscripts and tragic hopes, creative writing minors. In an economy like ours, your chances of publication are bleak – unless, that is, you have unlimited access to a mind-enhancing “smart pill” called MDT-48. That’s the premise of Alan Glynn’s novel “Limitless,” anyway (originally published as “The Dark Fields” in 2001).

You might remember “Limitless” from theaters last spring – or maybe not, judging by its lukewarm critical reception. In any case, it was the movie with Robert DeNiro and that guy from “The Hangover,” and I guess it was pretty good. Some of the visual effects that critics like to describe with words like “stunning” or “experimental” were in keeping with the movie’s billing as a techno-thriller, sure, but in the end they just left me dizzy.

What I found truly stunning – dizzying enough to reverse that age-old tradition of reading the book first and seeing the movie second – were the ideas.

“Limitless” is a novel about human enhancement. And while our trans-humanist hero Eddie Spinola’s journey might end up in some unlikely situations (convincing a shady Russian loan shark to give him half a million dollars by promising to write him into a screenplay about the Mafia, for example), in terms of believability Glynn’s novel is light-years ahead of old-school science fiction that couldn’t see beyond evil cyborgs or disembodied brains in jars. Chances are, the future’s going to look a lot more like “Limitless” than “I, Robot.”

Eddie Spinola starts the novel writing his own novel (that’s right, it’s meta from the very first page), with a day job as a copy editor at some podunk publishing firm. There may have been a point in the distant past at which he had his life together, but it certainly isn’t now, fifty pounds and one failed marriage later.
Lucky, then, that his ex-wife’s brother hasn’t changed at all. When they serendipitously meet on the street one mediocre morning, Eddie’s drug-dealer-in-law gives him a sample of a mysterious substance that propels the intelligent but unmotivated Eddie to the stratosphere of genius and productivity. Lucky, also, that Eddie gets his hands on the entire existing supply of MDT-48 when his supplier gets offed in a very messy scene that I’ll happily leave to Alan Glynn for description.

Taking half, then one, then two or three pills a day, Eddie finds himself playing the stock market like a true Wall Street One-Percenter – with the spare time to wax philosophical about the global trading network as a “template for human consciousness” or “humanity’s collective nervous system.”
On a tangential note, that’s something I liked better about the book: like its original title, it’s deeper, darker and includes quite a few more discussions about the nature of free will and determinism.

You don’t have to have seen the movie to guess that with great power comes great responsibility, and even greater plot twists (involving many, many terrible things happening to our Eddie Spinola as he spins out of control). But even if you did see “Limitless” in theaters, the original, words-only iteration is well worth the read. In fact, it might not be fair to compare the two versions at all: the book is so much more nuanced – subtle where the movie is showy – that it makes you think even while calling itself a techno-thriller.

Along those lines, what’s most impressive is how Glynn makes an apparently far-fetched plot completely believable – from the ideas about boosting human intelligence to the political context of the United States invading (pardon me, “liberating,”) Mexico (from drug cartel tyranny, ironically enough). By the end, you get the feeling that not only could this book happen – it could be happening right now.

Walden: Escape to Zombie Mountain (a horror novel somebody really needs to write)

11 Oct

So, I was sitting in English class today, poring over Henry David Thoreau’s Transcendentalist classic Walden, when I had a brilliant idea.  It was the kind of brilliant idea that comes without warning, a bolt of electricity shocking the torpid mind of a college senior in a freshman English class at 8 am on a Tuesday.  That kind of idea.  You know what I mean.  And the idea was this:

Somebody needs to turn Walden into a horror-fantasy novel along the lines of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Think about it for a minute.

Genius, right?

He's halfway to zombiehood already. Look at those circles under the eyes.

Walden, for those of you whose minds and imaginations also occasionally drifted off during your 8 am English courses, is a book (nonfiction) about a man who lives in almost perfect solitude in the woods for two years, communing with nature, building rickety shelters for himself, and all around disappointing the parents who put him through Harvard.

But take this 19th-century intellectual, Henry David Thoreau, place him in a post-apocalyptic landscape of roving bands of hungry zombies, and you’ll never look at Transcendentalism the same way again (“I went to the woods to live free of the undead,” or something like that).

I can see Thoreau escaping his little Northeastern town, overrun by hungry corpses, and hiding out at Walden Pond for his survival.  But, being Thoreau, and feeling all at one with nature in his hermit-like life, he finds himself realizing that the zombies have it right: They suck all the juices and marrow out of life like real men (literally).  The following is an actual quote from the real Walden:

I think that I love society as much as most, and am ready enough to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes in my way.

Thoreau naturally grabs his buddies Emerson and Whitman, and joins the zombie hordes just long enough to get brutally dismembered and die screaming.  But they lived, you know?  They followed their own Truth.  They didn’t conform to the conventions of a society that told them to run from the undead parasites taking over the world.  That’s the path to a life of quiet desperation.

Anyway, I think Walden‘s in the public domain, so: somebody get on this.*

* 50% of royalties to me, goes without saying, amiright?

3 (Way Cooler) Alternate Explanations for Grant Cochran’s Resignation

24 Sep

Facebook and Twitter were on fire when I woke up today, after the University of Alabama’s campus paper the Crimson-White broke the shocking, shocking, oh so shocking news that UA’s SGA president, Grant Cochran, has resigned.

Wait… what?

UA students are weaned on ghost stories of “The Machine,” the shadowy Greek organization that supposedly holds the Student Government Association in the palm of its hand, rigging elections and keeping independents from winning major offices.  A nobody like me, for example, can be appointed Ambassador to the Libraries probably only because nobody else applied.  I’m so bottom-tier, I get left off email lists.

Which means I really don’t know what I’m talking about.  BUT, I do think that if something this dramatic had to happen, it should at least be for reasons less mundane than what the CW reported at 3:27 am–that “SGA President Grant Cochran has resigned amid allegations that irregularities occurred in the selections process for the SGA’s First Year Council, a freshman leadership forum within the student government.”

Come on people–booted from office because of freshmen?  How terribly banal.  In the interest of totally unfounded conspiracy theories, here are my 3 Way More Interesting Explanations for El Presidente’s Resignation:

1. The Illuminati

Everyone knows that Alabama’s practically the buckle on the Bible belt.  The shiny, happy, hymn-singing buckle.  But what you probably don’t know is that the Illuminati have a strong presence in campus affairs as well.

That’s right.  Albino, self-flagellating monks a la DaVinci Code forced UA’s SGA President to resign.  Probably, they pressured him into putting their Catholic First-Year Council applicants at the top of the list, thus furthering their hegemonic control over campus politics.  I would suggest the Homecoming Queen watch out.  She’s next.

2. British Alien Malleteers

No list of conspiracy theories could possibly hope to be complete without positing something, anything, about extraterrestrial life.  But I don’t mean just any aliens.  I mean a creature like that British sci-fi show alien Doctor Who.  There’s a reason so many Malleteers walk s0 jauntily around campus in their TARDIS shirts–and it’s not just because they’re fans of the show.  That would be lame.

It’s because they know it’s based in reality, and that the Day of Judgment has come.

I’ve been doing some close reading of the Mallet gospel, that mystical piece of 1970s literature called “The Book of Marvin.”  Let’s look at Chapter One:

3. And the Priests raised their voices in a great wail, saying, “O Mallet, why hast Thou abandoned us? Where be the Strength of Mallet, which saveth the seat of Power, which dismayeth the Greek, which shunneth the way of conformity, which maketh us to be honored above all Men?”

5. And Mallet said, “Yea, my Priests do suffer grievous pain, at the hand of the Greek and the cockroach, of the administrator and the Department of Health.”

6.”Lo, I shall send down a new Spirit, who shall have all Power over the enemies of the Priests of the Spirit Mallet; and he shall be called Marvin.”

7. “And He shall have dominion over the fowl of the air and the beast of the field, and the Greek and the jock shall He lay low; then will the Priests of the Spirit Mallet be honored above all Men.”

Obv, that speaks for itself.  The writers of the Book of Marvin propesied THIS VERY DAY.  The Greek has been laid low–at the hands of a spirit “sent down” from space.  A spirit named Marvin.

Naturally, keeping people from seeing the connection between Marvin and the popular tv series based on his spacetime adventures, is why we talk about Doctor Who instead of the true name, Doctor Marvin.

3. Vampire Takeover

It seems curious to me that this news story was released at 3:27 am… until I considered who exactly was doing the releasing.  Quite clearly, vampires–strictly nocturnal, remember–have taken over the campus media.  If you recall, earlier in the year the CW ran a large number of articles and opinion pieces on the policies (or lack thereof) regarding student organization seating.  The point of all this was doubtless an attempt to distract from the real drama going down this football season:

Vampire attacks.

If students could be kept riled up over the unfairness of block seating, letters to the editor about blood-sucking monsters attacking fans could be kept out of the papers.  Those people you see passed-out drunk tailgating might not be drunk after all.  They might be half drained of blood, struggling for life and their humanity as hundreds of mindless students and alumni carouse all around them.

Hey, why do you think we call it the Crimson Tide?

5 Probably Horrible Science Fiction Plots I Dreamed Up This Year

23 Sep

So, there are a couple important reasons I’m studying history instead of, say, creative writing:

Cite your sources or die!

One: The stories practically write themselves.

Two: The characters are usually more interesting.

And three: I’m a wizard with footnotes.

But there’s always been a part of me deep down inside that wanted to write fiction, yearning to go all crazy second-person, present-tense, steam-of-consciousness on readers’ asses.  (Actually, in the first major original research I did for history a couple years ago, I did try to write the intro in the present tense.  My professor sighed sympathetically and simply said: “I tried doing things like that when I was starting out too.”)  I’m cured of that delusion now, but sometimes, on the dark, stormy nights of REM cycles, my subconscious rebels.

I’ve been writing down my dreams almost every night since fifth grade.  That’s… 12 years now.  Which is kind of messed-up in itself.  BUT, it also means I have a fantastic record of what I’d write if I weren’t sane.  Personally, I think they’d be awesome.

NOTE: These are actual excerpts from my current dream journal.  Otherwise known as Volume 23.

1. “Prepare to Suffer”  (Nov. 14, 2010)

Abe Lincoln says to the boy, as the kid puts on his floppy straw hat, long beige canvas-like coat, and picks up his staff in preparation for his journey—“Prepare to suffer.”  Lincoln has taken this trip before, and I think to myself, If I didn’t know better I’d say Lincoln’s read some Nietchze.  I am going on the journey then, and there’s a copy of a hardcover book (an old book with a spine that’s not very sturdy anymore) which says something to that effect.

Lincoln takes us to this man/prisoner being interrogated in a room.  His name is “Nikator.”  He’s calm and nonchalant, and tells one of the men in there (there are a number of FBI agents) that he could kill him and escape if they were alone—and says all of this with a smile and a laugh.

I have to leave because I’m an actress who gets these bit parts in some murder mystery show, where I’m stabbed with a sword in an elevator.  Of course it’s fake, but I still dread the part when it plunges in and then comes out the back, because I feel the pressure.  Then I fall over backward and the point coming out my back balances me above the ground.

Afterward, I realize that there’s a flap of skin missing on my stomach, and my intestines dangle out a bit.  I hold them in as I look for the doctor, who isn’t wearing pants and has an unbuttoned short-sleeve pint shirt in lavender and blue.  He’s been drinking, and doesn’t want to sew me up.

NOTE: I envision this as an alternate history sort of psychological thriller, with a lot of gnostic philosophy between chapters.  Kind of like a cross between Philip K. Dick and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

2. “Diarfa eb ton od, alebasi.”

Pronounced: “DARE-fuh eeb ton ood, al-EB-uh-zih.”

NOTE: Backwards, this reads “Isabela, do not be afraid.”  Obviously it would be incorporated into my novel as a not-that-cryptic-at-all message from the heroine’s (obviously Isabela’s) historical doppelganger Rose Hawthorne (daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne), who keeps appearing to our heroine in vivid mystical visions.  Not that this has actually happened.  But compare pictures of us as children, and you’ll totally see what I mean:

Spooky.

3. F8

On vacation somewhere with mom and [my sisters], and we’d been there previously.  I find things I left for myself: like hints in a live-action game of Clue we played, only this time it was really serious.  I pass this little hill of rocks and bricks and sticks I’d been working on the year before, painting them blue to mark for future-me to find.

There are directions above an arch like a doorway without a door or walls outside.  It says to go over the “Giants’ Path,” and then a certain number of steps past a nail on a post, or sthng.  I go the direction indicated, through some trees, barefoot, and hit a pitch black lake.  [My sister and cousin] are with me—I ask her: How do we get across this?  We walk, she says.  But I’m up to my neck quickly.  She is out far into the middle really quickly, but I try and gesture to her—it’s near the shore, to the right, submerged in the water at this end: the Giants’ Path.  We go over a great royal blue plank bridge I’d forgotten was there.

Across the bridge is a house, very old, that’s like a library.  There are scrapbooked pages propped on a dresser, news clippings on pink and yellow floral paper.  The pictures from the newspapers, however, are of King Henry VII ordering the execution of someone.  This is the answer to a mystery, I realize.  And the picture shows Henry looking at the camera with his tongue stuck out, like that famous picture of Einstein.  I realize Einstein must’ve been photoshopped from this one.

The message above the arch had given a jumbled code starting F8.  I immediately knew this was Library of Congress cataloguing code.  The books are numbered so in the house, but the F8 one indicated isn’t useful.  On my last trip there, I hadn’t found the newspapers.  In the piano bench, though, I do find my sister’s Level 2 Spanish book—which she hasn’t done, even though now she has Level 3.

NOTE: I’m sure you already realize where this is going, but it seems obvious to me that the house at the end of the Giants’ Path will be my portal to Narnia, where I’ll either find religion or else go all Golden Compass and kill God.  I’ll ask my editors what they think.  A major subplot, of course, will be my decision to get a Masters in Library and Information Sciences.

4. The Traveling History Circus (that’s my title of choice)

Penta is a young girl with short blonde hair and a small braid on the right side; talking to her grandmother Penta, about the little green bugs that used to live on flowers, aphids, and the yellow stems coming out of the center of the petals covered in pollen.  Penta is also the name of the place where they live, now completely submerged in water, so they’re amphibious people.  They are a people of oral history, and every year they send two children to a workshop.  Penta is one of them; she leaves at night, choosing the steepest and fastest of three paths up the mountain.

Its purpose is to seek out the talented young of these people and turn them into mobile historians—visiting other places and telling the stories of their culture.  This was one of the projects instituted by the new king of one region, whose power extends to influence over others nearby.  The king is bearded and made this announcement over a dam that was being worked on and should be ready “in two weeks” (which wasn’t true—it’s more like a month or more).  They are all water creatures, and Penta’s people live completely underwater.  One man came to the dam—he was a charcoal-gray color over his whole body and the narrator says: He was pale and wouldn’t have been noticed (in the water).

Penta is already unique, though few seem to realize it yet—she “remembered” aphids and pollen, wven though she’d never seen or heard of them before.  It was a sort of psychic collective unconscious.  Her grandmother, blind, sitting under a tree, had listened with a sense of wonder.

NOTE: This is one of those classic “coming of age stories,” with an Asimovian The Gods Themselves kind of twist regarding the lives of the alien people of Penta.  Naturally, there will be an incredibly complex background mythology, and the historians will ultimately foment rebellion across the countryside against the bureaucratic king.  Because that’s what historians do, am I right guys?  Shoot, I really need to think about what I’m posting… I’m applying to grad school this semester…

5. Terson Bragg

NOTE: Prepare for it.  This one’s seriously meta.

I suddenly remember that long time ago, I wrote a science fiction novel (unpublished) in which the hero was a man called Terson Bragg, who became a machine.  I have forgotten this book until recently.

Now, the technology is available to place human consciousness into a machine—I am to be the second to do it; My uncle was first.  The thing is that, for two seconds, the mind is placed in a machine way out in space, one of those out by the asteroid belt and Saturn, taking pictures.  So, this transfer can be done at a great distance.  And for two seconds, a person’s mind will be there, seeing what the machine sees, and all the vastness of space.  Uncle John says it was beautiful, so great and awe-some.  I am nervous, and worry that the two seconds will seem like such a long time, like a lifetime (Uncle John said it felt longer than seconds), and that I’ll be blinded by all the stars and celestial bodies.  But I know it is an opportunity I cannot miss.

I go to the front desk—the reception room all chrome and glass—of the company where this will take place.  I am holding my kindle, which is circular and about the diameter of the inner circle of our large Frisbee.  The woman at the desk uses that to ascertain my identity, but says that next time I should bring the proper paperwork [it had a name—sounds like ubiquitous], which looked like dark blue-green x-rays.  All the time I am frightened, like on the way up to the first drop of a rollercoaster, thinking all the time that I want to get off but knowing I can’t, and knowing I had to take this opportunity.

I return home.

Mom and my sisters and Uncle John and everyone ask me how it was, but I find—I can’t remember.  I literally can’t remember, and Mom suggests—maybe I didn’t do it after all.  Maybe I backed out.  But I don’t remember doing that either, and I know, I couldn’t have.  I was frightened, but determined.  I try so hard to remember, but I can’t.  I can’t.  And then they suggest—well, do you remember it four years ago?  Because four years ago I wrote the Terson Bragg book, and this robotic-mind technology is analogous—and perhaps when I shifted consciousness back the memories went to the place they thought they should be.  And I was panicked and said no, no, but I do have an image of space from a rotating spot, black but bright with a golden light, with stars and colors everywhere.  And beautiful.

Then the future.  The world has strange collapsing tendencies, and people sometimes float down from buildings I see on the empty streets.

FINAL NOTE: Besides the fact that the science is off, I kind of think I wrote that one pretty well, even half-asleep at my computer, probably not wearing my glasses.  And besides, when did iffy science ever stop science fiction writers?  And Terson Bragg is a badass character name.

China Mieville keeps getting weirder (and that’s a win for all of us)

20 Jun

“Weird fiction” writer China Mieville doesn’t write space opera (or at least he hasn’t yet), but even so (perhaps because of it), his non-human races are nonpareil.  The khepri, garuda, and vodyanoi of Bas-Lag are foreign and compelling, but Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council are most memorable as masterpieces of crypto-communist steampunk.  Kraken was completely different, a thriller-detective-theological hybrid.  And now we have Mieville’s latest literary work, Embassytown, my favorite without a doubt (and here I was thinking nothing but Gormenghast was better than Perdido Street Station), with the most breathtaking alien race I’ve ever read (and that includes The Gods Themselves).

But let me stop title-dropping and write a little more coherently (with less parenthetical asides).

You could call China Mieville’s writing style schizophrenic–if he weren’t so good at everything.  Every book he has come out with has been different–wildly different–from the last.  Maybe he’s experimenting with narrative.  Maybe he gets bored easily.  Maybe he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed.  “Weird Fiction,” after all, as far as genre categorization goes, doesn’t tell readers much.  And neither can I, except that I’m in raptures and YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK:

Click for Amazon.

China Miéville doesn’t follow trends, he sets them. Relentlessly pushing his own boundaries as a writer—and in the process expanding the boundaries of the entire field—withEmbassytown, Miéville has crafted an extraordinary novel that is not only a moving personal drama but a gripping adventure of alien contact and war.

In the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet, home to the enigmatic Ariekei, sentient beings famed for a language unique in the universe, one that only a few altered human ambassadors can speak.

Avice Benner Cho, a human colonist, has returned to Embassytown after years of deep-space adventure. She cannot speak the Ariekei tongue, but she is an indelible part of it, having long ago been made a figure of speech, a living simile in their language.

When distant political machinations deliver a new ambassador to Arieka, the fragile equilibrium between humans and aliens is violently upset. Catastrophe looms, and Avice is torn between competing loyalties—to a husband she no longer loves, to a system she no longer trusts, and to her place in a language she cannot speak yet speaks through her.

 

This has been a production of the Scattering’s “Least Helpful Books Reviews” series.  I’m going to blame the whole “applying to grad school” thing.

Ayn Rand wrote science fiction?

8 Jun

Let’s drive some traffic to the good ol’ University of Alabama campus newspaper.  Today, my first-ever print column was published in the Crimson White.  Soon, Tuscaloosa will be the science fiction consumption capital of the world, American Studies profs will be teaching classes on Atlas Shrugged, and everyone will be reading off of Kindles.

It’s nice to be a tastemaker.

Click for the full column: "Ayn Rand wrote science fiction?"