Archive for November, 2014

It feels a little on the nose to post about dystopias today, but hopefully you’ll forgive me for that–it’s just what was scheduled.

Mockingjay, Part 1 came out last Friday and made millions of dollars over the weekend. I haven’t gotten around to seeing it yet, although I probably will. I enjoy the films; I think they’re good adaptations. You know, unlike The Giver movie, which was a terrible travesty.


But I’ve been thinking about The Hunger Games recently and trying to figure out why they pose something of a problem. And why the ending feels so choppy and disjointed. It’s a problem I have with a lot of contemporary (mostly YA) dystopian fiction. Divergent is another big, blockbuster example of this. (I still haven’t read the Pure trilogy by Julianna Baggott, which is supposed to be really fantastic, so shame on me.)

It occurred to me that this difficulty with endings might be symptomatic of a dystopian series, i.e., not just a standalone novel. Although dystopian novels–like all good fiction–should have compelling characters, they’re at heart idea stories. Fahrenheit 451: what if books were illegal? Brave New World: what if we did away with traditional reproduction? The Giver: what if we suppressed our emotions? Even The Hunger Games is an idea story: what if a society reinstated the Roman Coliseum?  Same with Divergent: what if we were divided by our dominant personality traits? These setups reflect our anxieties and they also afford us an opportunity to ask questions about the nature of our humanity. A typical dystopian novel meditates on the outcomes of a society’s choices and leaves us with a relatively ambiguous ending.

However, in a fiction series, that can’t happen. We might end with ambiguity in the first novel, but the story picks up again in the next book. And traditionally, it does this as a linear continuance of the existing narrative, i.e., we don’t shift POVs or timelines. Which changes the nature of the story. It ceases to be an exploration of the dystopian state and instead becomes a full struggle between the individual (hero, at this point) and the society. In other words, my theory is: extended dystopian narratives must at some point become revolution narratives. What choice does the author have? If the character surrenders to the state, the story ends. If the state destroys the character, the story ends. If the character lives out the rest of a quiet life hiding from the state, the story ends.*

Is a revolution narrative inherently problematic? Not necessarily. But it requires a different kind of plotting and a different conception of character and it’s hard to make those adjustments midstream. Consider how much of the novel Mockingjay is devoted to setting up the nature of the rebellion. It makes for an ungainly structure–and it’s an incredible amount of information to invest in one book.

Moreover, any extended exploration of the dystopia requires a more thorough deconstruction of that dystopia. This is where, for example, the Divergent series falters. Once we get outside the wall, we need an explanation for why what’s happened has happened–the characters need to know why their lives are the way they are. The problem is, these narratives are rarely satisfying. They diminish our ability to see ourselves in the dystopia–which is one of the major requirements of the subgenre.

We find an interesting exception in The Giver sequels, which deal predominantly with life outside the Community. Lowry maintains the quiet, meditative tone of the first book throughout Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son. Interestingly, she also doesn’t take on the entirety of the dystopia as she continues the story. She keeps the narrative localized and personal. Jonas doesn’t storm back home and overthrow the order. He tries to live a new life, which presents new challenges. In Son, Lowry examines another aspect of the Community through Claire–but she uses a character shift and separate timeline to provide us with a more nuanced point of view. So perhaps not all dystopian narratives end in revolution. Perhaps, rather, the kinds of stories the authors choose to tell–and the kinds of characters on whom they focus–create part of the difficulty.

*A much more interesting outcome would be if the character joined the state, but I’ve yet to see that in a series (No, Peeta does not count). It would satisfy my greatest disappointment with The Hunger Games, which is that we should see the events from the POV of an average Capital citizen.

What do you think of dystopian series? Are they satisfying? What you think of the transition to revolutionary fiction?


Like it or not, the holiday season has begun its encroachment on the vastly under-appreciated month we call November. Now, as far as I’m concerned, the first two weeks of the month could easily be incorporated into Halloween and Day of the Dead festivities. But the multi-million (billion?) dollar industry we know as the Christmas season begs to differ.

But just because that Mariah Carey song is going to start playing on loop in shopping malls across America, doesn’t you mean you can’t have a beautifully speculative Christmas / Hanukkah / Festivus / Kwanzaa / day off work in 2014. In fact, if you’re looking for gift suggestions for your nerdier friends, never fear. I’ll be rolling out three gift guides for the three wise men divisions of spec fic: horror, fantasy, and science fiction.

Image borrowed from Monster Island News.

Image borrowed from Monster Island News.

We’ll begin with suggestions for your more eerily minded compadres:

  1. More horror than you could ever watch.**
  2. The haunted house board game that keeps on giving with dozens of scary scenarios: Betrayal at House on the Hill.
  3. This shower curtain. And these hand towels.
  4. A heart necklace.
  5. These shoes. Or these. Or these. Or pretty much anything from Iron Fist.
  6. Bone jewelry! This vendor really is fantastic and all of the materials are humanely collected.
  7. My very favorite zombie show (sorry, The Walking Dead), AKA In the Flesh.
  8. Speaking of The Walking Dead, however, this official merch table lamp would light up any room.
  9. A Krampus to hang on the tree.
  10. Classic horror themed clothing.
  11. Childhood nostalgia, i.e., Goosebumps in its entirety.
  12. Uhhh, this thing.
  13. A first edition copy of Dracula. Or if you don’t have thousands of dollars handy, some more affordable horror first editions on Abebooks.
  14. If all else fails, why not just send them a Box of Dread?

These would be well worth the ankle injury.


*Unless you were bedridden with swine flu for two weeks and didn’t have anything better to do. I will not be judged for this.


Unless you sustained some sort of head injury last week, you’re likely well aware that we landed a probe on a comet for the first time in human history. If you missed it–or even if you didn’t–check out XKCD’s animated flipbook of the landing.

One of the crazy weird things about living in the Information Age is that we’re witnessing many of our ancestors’ wild imaginings becoming reality. (Still working on hoverboards, though.) Of course, it’s not just about creating new gadgets, but discovering more about our world and ourselves. So here’s some exciting (if sometimes alarming) and recent science news:

This week’s Kickstarter of Note actually comes from Indiegogo.

Project: BOX: A Live Science Fiction Trilogy 

End Date: January 2, 2015 11:59pm PT.

Prizes: Acknowledgement in the playbill, thank you cards, audio-stories on CD, autographed posters, invitations to events, a guest spot on the troop’s selecting committee, Tuckerization, signed books, coffee and/or dessert with the director, a house concert, and associate or executive producer status.

Current Goal: $2000

Current Number of Backers: 23

Current Pledges: $950

Why they deserve your support: Because local theater troops (this one is called Pulp Stage and they’re in Portland) are the absolute best, and virtual reality stories are crazy fun. Because Pulp Stage’s new Prime Plays project is an inventive, minimalistic approach which allows them to tell a wide range of stories. And with Indiegogo, they get your support even if they don’t make their goal. Not to mention–science fiction theater? More of that, please.

Did I donate: $1, as promised!


We haven’t had a Hope for the Genre in ages, so it’s obviously time to bring it back into the repertoire.


Genre: Superhero? Superhero commentary? Mild magical realism? Psychological spec fic?

Medium: Film

The premise: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)written and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu–tells the story of Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton), a washed-up Hollywood actor who is trying to revitalize his career with a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” And before you ask what the hell that has to do with any kind of speculative fiction, Riggan formerly played Birdman, a superhero character in big budget films. Riggan is haunted–or possibly hounded–by his alter ego, who voices all of his dissatisfaction with the world around him. He descends into more and more elaborate fantasies in which he is telekinetic, can fly, etc. Meanwhile, the play is under constant threat of failure as it finishes its week of previews before opening. Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, and Andrea Riseborough play Riggan’s malcontent cast; Zach Galifianakis is his neurotic producer, lawyer, and best friend, Jake. Emma Stone co-stars as his daughter, Sam, recently out of rehab. The story is a twisted mess of relationships and affairs haunted by the specter of more grandiose dreams.

Why it’s awesome: This movie has earned every ounce of praise it’s received from critics and audiences. It’s fantastic, in every sense of the word. Keaton (formerly Batman) kills it as Riggan Thomas. I loved Birdman’s raspy, Bale-in-The-Dark-Knight-esque voice, evoking the entire genre. The commentary on superhero culture was fabulous without sucking all the fun out of it. And for a movie that is largely psychologically driven, the action never lets up. There’s constantly another turn or altercation that keeps you engaged and often anxious about the movie’s outcome. Norton makes a hilarious douchebag stage actor; Watts kills it as his insecure girlfriend who just wants to be on Broadway. It was incredibly rewarding, too, to see Emma Stone and Zach Galifianakis break out of type. Not to mention one of the best instrumental soundtracks (Antonio Sanchez) I’ve heard in years–the drums are practically their own character in the film.

Why it’s hopeful: We can debate a bit about whether this qualifies as pure speculative fiction or whether it’s merely reflecting on a particular subgenre. There is a certain amount of ambiguity at the end about the nature of Riggan’s fantasies (not unlike Pan’s Labyrinth, another movie I adore). But does it matter if what Riggan experiences is real? Isn’t the point that all of us long for big explosions and fame and incredible heroism? The film connects these desires to social media in a beautifully subtle and smart way that feels current. And although the story certainly highlights the tension between works like Carver’s short fiction and the comic book genre (echoed in the tension between Broadway and Hollywood), I don’t think it comes down neatly on one side or the other. We see the inherent flaws in both groups of people. After all, Norton’s character Mike is incredibly pretentious and narcissistic as much as Riggan is egomaniacal and delusional. Besides, the film relies on elements of both to succeed–each genre has something to lend to the story. Ultimately, whatever the reality of Riggan’s situation, Superhero culture feeds Birdman, much in the way it feeds Kavalier and Clay, which is likewise an incredible work of art.

For your late-week viewing, I recommend:

“Ambition,” a short film about nothing less than life, the universe, and everything. Starring the inimitable Aidan Gillen and directed by Tomek Baginksi.


Then, for a mild case of the creeps, check out “Night Swim” by Rod Blackhurst and  Bryce James McGuire.


And to finish with something purely lovely, watch “Premier Automne” by Carlos De Carvalho.