Ghost stories, Ursula Le Guin, and Gay Trading Cards…

… are among the topics that came up in David Grossman’s interview of me over at io9, along with some discussion of my short story, “Tio Gilberto and the Twenty-Seven Ghosts.”  Check the interview out here in case you didn’t catch it yet.  David had some great questions and it’s cool to see io9 initiating some discussion of LGBT themes in spec fic. The interview is part of io9’s new “short story club” discussion group, a very cool feature showcasing a different SF short story each week – and the stories are always available online for free, somewhere across the vast lands of the internets.

In other Tio Gilberto-related news, Realms of Fantasy just announced its first annual Reader Awards, and John Kaiine’s illustration of the story was the runner-up in the art category.  It’s a gorgeous illustration, so it’s not surprising that many Realms readers loved it.  Congrats, John!

Five Signs a Superhero Movie Franchise Has Jumped the Shark

I didn’t catch the opening of Iron Man 2 yet, but several things I’ve read about the movie have got me worried.  I have no expectation that it will be as good as the first one; I’d be happy with merely decent.  My worry is that the Iron Man movie franchise has already completely jumped the shark.  To assess the situation, I’ve identified five signs that a superhero sequel has gone to very bad places.

(Note: My main focus here is on superhero movie series that start out at least decent and become quite indecent.  So there is no place for, say, Fantastic Four in this analysis, since that series had nowhere to go but up after its frightful start.)

1. Supervillain Proliferation

As a franchise goes on for one or more sequels, some brilliant producer inevitably gets the idea, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if there were two supervillains in this movie?”  Alas, it is rarely cool.  Mostly it just leads to a crowded cast and a crowded script, and lots of cornball moments.  An early example is Batman Forever, when the Riddler finds Two-Face in his lair and basically says, “Hey, we’re both supervillians with weird fetishes and a shared hatred of Batman.  Let’s team up!”  Jim Carey’s over-the-top humor almost makes it work.

More recently, Spider-Man 3 had a major supervillain overdose, with Sandman, a new Green Goblin (Harry Osborn), and Venom all crammed into one plot.

There are notable exceptions to the rule, of course. Batman Begins worked perfectly fine with both the Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul – but in that case, Scarecrow was working for Ra’s al Ghul from the start – very different from an awkward team-up or a jigsaw puzzle of disparate plots.  And, of course, at least two X-movies did okay with a team of super-villains.

Things don’t look great for Iron Man 2 on this count, with both Justin Hammer and Blacklash/Crimson Dynamo taking the stage.

2. The Hero Goes Bad, Often for Silly Reasons

The superhero going bad seems to be a low-hanging fruit for comic-book sequels, often for fairly contrived reasons, and almost always with disastrous results.  The first superhero sequel to go this route was probably Superman 3, wherein Supes goes bad after exposure to faulty kryptonite mixed with cigarette tar. But, without a doubt, the most painfully egregious offender on this score is Spider-Man 3, in which possession by the black suit makes Spidey go evil, exposing millions of unsuspecting fans to Tobey Maguire dancing awkwardly to disco music.  A lesser offender is X3: the Last Stand, with Jean Grey transforming into the evil Phoenix.

Also of note are the clever visual cues directors use to indicate the hero’s new, evil-fied persona:  evil Phoenix’s veins pop out of her skin; evil Superman is unshaven, has a tan, and a costume that looks like it hasn’t been laundered in a while; and, most frighteningly of all, evil Peter Parker has bangs.

I’m not sure how they’d depict an evil Iron Man, since Tony Stark already has a beard and what-not, but it does sound like Stark is a bit of a jerk in Iron Man 2, but far from full-on evil.

3. The More Plots the Merrier

This one is a close corollary of indicator #1.  As villains proliferate, so too do the number of plot convolutions.  Many storylines are crammed together – some of them even interesting! – but none are explored in-depth because the script is just too crowded.  Witness Wikipedia’s sad attempt to briefly summarize the premise of Spider-Man 3:

The film begins with Peter Parker basking in his success as Spider-Man, while Mary Jane Watson continues her Broadway career. Harry Osborn still seeks vengeance for his father’s death, and an escaped convict, Flint Marko, falls into a particle accelerator and is transformed into a shape-shifting sand manipulator. An extraterrestrial symbiote crashes to Earth and bonds with Peter, influencing his behavior for the worse. When Peter abandons the symbiote, it finds refuge in Eddie Brock, a rival photographer, causing Peter to face his greatest challenge.

Yikes.  A more distressing example was X-Men: The Last Stand, which took two awesome storylines directly from the pages of the comic books (Chris Claremont’s classic Dark Phoenix Saga and Joss Whedon’s more recent “mutant cure” story), and then put them in a blender to make one awful mess of a movie.

No one seems able to summarize the plot of Iron Man 2 in three sentences or less, which has me worried.

4. Awkward Love Sub-Plots

At some point in any superhero series, the standard superhero love interest gets boring, and convoluted love sub-plots often ensue.  And so we have Lana Lang attempting to fill in for Lois Lane’s absence in Superman 3, Cyclops getting killed off so that Wolverine and Jean Grey can have more sexy screen time in X3, and a lazily undeveloped love triangle between Peter Parker, Mary Jane, and Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man 3.

With both the Black Widow and Pepper in Iron Man 2, this may be yet another sign of danger…

5. The Title Has a “3” in it

As you may have noticed, I’ve picked quite a lot on Batman Forever, Spider-Man 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, and Superman 3.  All four represented turns for the worse in series that, up until that point, had produced movies that were at least decent, if not excellent.  One final thing they all have in common is that they were all the third in the series.  So perhaps there’s still hope for Iron Man 2!

Superhero Self-Help

Just finished reading From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain by Minister Faust.  The novel is a hilarious send-up of the superhero genre, told in the form of a self-help book for superheroes: “When Being A Superhero Can’t Save You from Yourself – Self-Help for Today’s Hyper-Hominids.”  The novel is narrated by Dr. Eva Brain-Silverman, who is leading six dysfunctional superheroes through group therapy in the wake of a fellow hero’s death. The opening paragraph gives a pretty good flavor:

You can wrap a steel I beam around your neck with your bare hands and wear it like a tie.  You can swim so quickly that you can go back in time to offer Columbus correct directions to India.  You can climb the outside of a building, regurgitate the ton of paper you’ve eaten, and weave a beautiful multilevel hive while not paying a cent in downtown rent.

But are you happy?

Faust not only riffs off superhero psychology to hilarious effect, he also explores a sort of alternate Marvel/DC universe that is as diverse as the real world.  His racial (and gender/sexual orientation) critique of the superhero genre is brilliantly constructed – and brings a lot of laughs along the way.

At about 100 pages in, the book started to feel a bit slow to me, and I even wondered if there was really enough material for a 385-page superhero send-up.  But then it quickly picked up again, and there was a series of twists and revelations that were unpredictable, engaging, and just plain fun.  As the novel approaches its climax, the complex social criticism beneath the humor comes into sharp focus, and the result is nothing less than mind-blowing.  My laughter and pleasure in the book slowly gave way to anger as the intensity of the larger plot became clear.  Without getting into spoiler territory, the ending is unexpected, but completely apt, and it got me thinking about endings more generally.  So many endings aim to leave the reader satisfied, sad, even horrified – but rarely is anger the intended reaction.  Perhaps more books ought to do so; there’s no shortage of injustice for us to be angry about.

My sense is that Faust’s critique is not so much of psychology but rather a certain aspect of the individualistic, self-help culture – a paradigm that, when taken to its extreme, tends to pathologize self-sacrifice and heroism, and leaves little room for an understanding of social justice.  It’s quite impressive that a book so successful in its humor is also so successful in its thought-provoking social commentary.

Faust is also brilliant at voice and dialogue – his mastery of multiple dialects reminded me of greats like Mark Twain, and that alone makes the book worth reading.  Recommended for anyone who loves superheroes, social criticism, or laughing out loud.

Tio Gilberto All Over the Internets!

My short story, “Tio Gilberto and the Twenty-Seven Ghosts,” is now available for free online at Realms of Fantasy’s website.  It’s also being featured next week in io9’s short-story reading club.  The short story club is a new feature at io9, and the first few stories featured included stories by Isaac Asimov and Elizabeth Bear, so it’s a thrill and an honor to be in such amazing company. 

BTW, io9 is one of the coolest places on the internets for sci-fi goodness, as exemplified by recent posts such as 38 reasons why Iron Man is cooler than Darth Vader, Patrick Stewart Explains How Shakespeare Prepares You for Science Fiction Acting, or 20 Great Infodumps from Science Fiction Novels.  Definitely worth adding to your RSS and/or regular routine of obsessive blog-checking. 

Anyway, I’m looking forward to the discussion of “Tio Gilberto” at io9 next Saturday. Many thanks to David Grossman at io9 and Doug Cohen and the gang at Realms for making Gilberto’s internet tour possible!

Went to the Moon for Spring Break but the Moon Turned Out to Completely Suck

That’s a paraphrase of the opening line of M.T. Andersen’s Feed, a young adult novel about an eerily familiar future in which everyone is connected to a neural feed, which transmits information, messages, and lots of advertising directly into your brain 24-7.   The story mainly follows a group of teenagers as they hang out, date, and consume.  The novel is one of the best I’ve read in recent memory, and has pretty much everything you want in a science fiction novel: great characters, an interesting and well-thought-out future, a brilliant voice, a good dose of humor, and some thought-provoking ideas about the world we live in. Possibly the most powerful thing about the novel is what’s mostly unspoken in the background: things have gotten pretty bad in this future, and meanwhile these American teenagers are just obliviously hanging out at the mall.  The fact that most of them have developed unexplicable lesions bothers them at first, until lesions become the latest fashion trend, of course.

It’s hard to say much more, other than that this book meg rocks.  Put it at the top of your reading list and you won’t be disappointed.

The New Doctor

I caught the debut of Matt Smith (the new Doctor on Doctor Who) on On Demand yesterday.  (I love On Demand, BTW.  I do wonder, though, why every On Demand program I’ve used has an outright user-hostile interface, but I imagine within a few years some entrepeneurial lass or lad will correct that and do quite well for themselves.  In the meantime I puzzle over mysteries such as why some Doctor Who episodes show up under “Primetime on Demand” and others under “BBC America On Demand.”)

But I digress.  The eleventh Doctor.  I think I’m quite fond of him.  More importantly, I’m quite fond of Doctor Who under Steven Moffat’s leadership.  After only one episode, I already feel more confidence in the writing.  It has that slightly hokey feel that Doctor Who should have, but manages to never cross into severe eye-rolling territory, as Russell T. Davies was known to do now and again.  The regeneration was well-done, and there was a lovely dash of Moffat horror thrown in throughout.  It also seems like Moffat is going to play around more with the time-travelling complexities, which strikes me as a fun way to explore the character.  “Oh, I said 5 minutes and it turned out to be 12 years?  Oops!” Vintage Doctor.

As for young Mr. Smith, I enjoyed his performance quite a lot, which is impressive considering my recently developed but still emotionally significant secret crush on David Tennant.  Smith is drawing a bit on Tennant but he’s doing his own thing, too.  He has just the right mix of cockiness, world-weary wisdom, adventurousness, and just-barely-beneath-the-surface timelord-y angst.  And I believed he was the Doctor pretty much from his first moment on screen, which, as Moffat said, is ultimately the only test that counts.  There were a few moments now and then where his youth came through in a way that felt like it was due more to Smith’s own youthful uncertainty than to the Doctor’s timeless exuberance, but they really were only a few moments, and I’m sure Smith is only going to get better as he grows into the role.   Also, love the outfit.  Bowties and suspenders are definitely due for a comeback.

And Amy Pond seems promising as a new companion.  Proactive and sharp and a bit different from the ones we’ve seen before.  Looking forward to seeing what the rest of the season has in store for us…

Concrete Monsters and Music at the End of the World…

… are among the stuff of the stories of LCRW 25, which will be coming out in April-May-ish.  This issue includes my story, “This is Not Concrete,” as well as “Music of the Spheres” by my Clarion-mate Daniel Braum.  I’m very psyched to be sharing a table of contents with Mr. Braum for the first time.  I’m also very psyched to appear in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, a wonderfully infamous zine that’s published some of the best interstitial, slipstream, just-plain-weird fiction of the modern epoch.  Through the magic of hyperlinks you can subscribe by clicking here.

Birthday Business, Shout-Outs, and Other Matters

Today is my 33rd birthday, and I’m celebrating by taking a mini-cation from work to write and see close friends – two of my favorite activities.  I was thinking of having a big party for myself but that sounded an awful lot like the event-organizing I’ve been doing for work lately, so I decided to postpone the party to a less busy time.  I’m thinking I may have a party some time in the summer to celebrate hitting a third of a century.

There are many other illustrious figures born on March 18, including at least two others born in 1977, the year that Star Wars was released and Harvey Milk was elected.  A very special happy birthday to Peter Ball, my birthday-brother from Australia, a fellow writer who defies categorization, writing in every genre from magic realism to pulp noir, and possibly inventing some new sub-genres along the way.  For a free online taste, I recommend this short story at Strange Horizons about merfolk, Copenhagen, love, and loss.

And happy birthday to all the other fabulous March 18ers, including Jordan, a new friend who was born only a half-hour apart from me, and Fernando, an old friend who was born a bit further apart from me than that. 🙂 

In other news, SF Signal recently asked this year’s Nebula award nominees for recommendations of other worthy stories.  I was honored and flattered to see that “Tio Gilberto and the Twenty-Seven Ghosts” was mentioned by several of the nominees.  Many thanks to Chris Barzak, Richard Bowes, Will McIntosh, and Rachel Swirsky for the shout-outs.  It’s especially nice to get kudos from those four writers, all of whom much deserved their nominations and routinely write some of the best stuff out there these days.

All right, time to get some real writing done…

Pre-Order Polyphony 7

Polyphony is a wonderful anthology series that’s published some of the best speculative fiction out there in recent years – with a specialization in the weird and interstitial. Volume 7 is now available for pre-order at Wheatland Press, and it features a great line-up of writers like Howard Waldrop, Mikal Trimm, and Bruce Holland Rogers.   Unfortunately, in the current challenging economic climate, it looks like they won’t be able to publish the book unless they get enough pre-orders.  So why not just order your copy now?  You get a great book plus you get to feel good about supporting a great small press…

Recommended Books from 2009

Finishing up my series of posts on recommended speculative fiction from 2009, these are the books published in 2009 that stood out for me.  Technically, these span across several categories for both the Nebula and Hugo awards, but I’m covering them all in one foul swoop – so this list includes novels, young adult books, anthologies, and novellas. 

  • The Love We Share without Knowing, by Christopher Barzak: Mosaic novel set in Japan, centered around a group of friends who form a “suicide club,” an action whose ripple effects we see among friends, family members, and lovers, all brilliantly drawn in Barzak’s prose.  These are powerful and haunting tales of loneliness and alienation, with some lovely moments of real connection amidst the loss.  The shelving gods have proclaimed Barzak to be “literature,” but the book has several ghosts and enchantments and other touches of magic realism. (Technically, I think this one was published in late 2008, but it’s still eligible for the Nebula under this year’s rules.)
  • Finch by Jeff VanderMeer:  Detective Finch must solve an unsolvable murder amidst the backdrop of Ambergris, a steampunk city of human beings occupied by the gray caps, their inhuman fungal overlords.  VanderMeer delivers every reader cookie you could possibly desire: brilliant world-building, brilliant noir mystery, brilliant prose, and brilliant characterization.   One of the most original books I’ve read in recent memory.  
  • Liar by Justine Larbalestier: Moving to Young Adult territory, this is one of the most sophisticated YA novels I’ve read in a while.  From the first sentence, Micah (our beloved hero) tells us that she’s a liar, beginning the ultimate unreliable-narrator tale. Larbalestier masterfully interweaves a tragic romance, the mystery of her sort-of boyfriend’s murder, some fantastic elements that may or may not be real, and the omnipresent uncertainty of everything Micah is telling us.  Hard to say more without getting spoiler-y, so just go out and read this book.   
  • Horn by Peter M. Ball: I only read a handful of novellas this year, but this is the one that stands out.  I’ve already gushed about it elsewhere, so I’ll try not to go on too much here.  Unicorn noir mystery, featuring a bad-ass lesbian PI who will come back from the dead if that’s what it takes to crack the case. 
  • Interfictions 2, edited by Christopher Barzak and Delia ShermanExcellent anthology of “interstitial” stories – stories that blur the boundaries between genres.  These stories wonderfully defy expectations, and many of them were among the best stories to come out in 2009.  This series is fast-becoming the heir apparent to Polyphony as the hot place to find stories of the interstitial/New Weird/slipstream/gonzo variety.

Other great books from 2009 included Nicholas Kaufmann’s extremely entertaining pulp fiction adventure, Hunt at World’s End; Joe Abercrombie’s sometimes disturbing dark fantasy revenge novel, Best Served Cold; Walter Jon Williams’ near-future thriller of gamers plunged into real-life mystery and intrigue, This is Not a Game; and Booklife, Jeff VanderMeer’s highly useful guide to writing in the 21st century by conquering the internet instead of allowing the internet to conquer you   Top of my remaining to-read list from 2009 include Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, Sarah Langan’s Audrey’s Door, Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest, and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, all of which I’ve heard are excellent.