Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Interview with Richard Bellush Jr. About "Slog".

I recently had the pleasure of reading the book “Slog” by Richard Bellush Jr. This novel is set in a post - apocalyptic future where the global warming has devastated the human race. Bellush weaves an adventure story with plenty of humor and some very interesting observations on human nature and our current society.

I asked Richard if he would mind being interviewed for my blog and he stepped up to the challenge. I tried to keep most of my questions based around elements of storytelling, but I just had to throw in a random question or two.

And now, Richard Bellush Jr. about his novel: “Slog”.

1) What drew you to write a post - apocalyptic story? It's been done before, what did you think you could add?

“Nothing is said that has not been said before.” – Terence, c. 160 BC

This is not quite true, of course. I just said, “Skateboarding wombats broke all my concrete soap dishes with Frisbees.” It is possible that someone has said that before, but I doubt it. Terence was closer to right in a less trivial sense. The fundamental human elements of good stories are what they always were. Yet, we still find new ways to present them, as Terence did himself.

In the case of science fiction, there likely hasn’t been a truly unprecedented premise for a story in 70 or more years. That’s OK, too. Authors still can bring us different and (one hopes) worthwhile personal perspectives. Moreover, every sf tale is a product of its particular time and place. Consider a few other post-apocalyptic novels: economic depression and fascism loom large in Well’s The “Shape of Things to Come” (1933), Vidal’s “Kalki” (1978) is inextricable from the political events and social developments of the 1970s, while the sensibility of the Cold War-era UK (including a twist on British fondness for dogs) pervades Hoban’s “Riddley Walker” (1980). At this point, these can be considered as much alternate histories as sf. All can be read today with enormous pleasure, but none would be written the same way today. Slog belongs to the 00s.

It wasn’t my primary plan to write a contemporary novel, however; this just happens whether you plan on it or not. I simply wanted to write an adventure tale – to invent characters and play with them. I did sneak political and social observations into their adventures, but hopefully in a light-footed way. Exotic locales are always good for such stories, and a post-civilized earth made even New Jersey (surely one of the most prosaic of places at present) exotic.

2) How did this book evolve? It feels like it might be a set of novellas united by its characters.

Actually, that is correct. Slog began life some 15 years ago as a short story: basically, chapter 1 of the novel. It was published in an early, and now-defunct, sf/horror webzine called “Clique of the Tomb Beetle”. For the next decade I wrote a variety of short stories, including one with the same characters as “Slog” (basically chapter 2 of the novel), many of which were published in webzines or in odd print lit-magazines.

In the early 2000s the idea of a full length novel became attractive. I already was half-way there with the two “Slog” stories, so I set to writing a couple more. I reworked the bunch (which made them of the 00s rather than the 90s) and the result was Slog, the novel.

Though the book is self-contained, I should add that there is one more novella in the series; it was begun after Slog was too far along with the publisher to be attached. “After Slog,” with one major character from the earlier novel, is included in the collection “Trash and Other Litter”. This was published a few months ago, and is available on Amazon and elsewhere.

3) How the does the title of book fit into the story?

I have a penchant for monosyllabic titles, e.g. “Scum,” “Trash,” and “Blow” (the latter short story about cocaine was published before the movie of the same name was made, but I don’t think the title was borrowed). In the original short story, “Slog” was meant to convey a sense of the wet jungle environment through which the characters had to, well, slog. I simply carried it over to the novel, though the characters there range over deserts and mountains, too.

4) Why climate change instead of war or famine or disease?

In part because it is topical. I didn’t want to get bogged down in the politics of it, though. This is why the change is attributed primarily to the sun being more variable than had been believed (as some stars are); it unexpectedly enters a hot phase. Disease and famine do the rest. This scenario also has the plot advantage of leaving the remains of civilization (including some dangerous weapons) decayed but largely intact.

5) Is there something I should know about Quebec's desire for world domination?

Aside from the chance it gave me to tease a friend and occasional horseback riding partner (he is a French Canadian physicist), it was meant to show that such ambitions are opportunistic. People and peoples are tempted to grab for power when the chance arises and the risk is low. It also let me play a bit of role reversal with language politics -- in this case English-speakers resisting the dominant French. Aujourd'hui Nouveau Jersey, demain le monde.

6) George Custer and Ulysses S. Johnston are obviously named after famous figures in American history. Why did you go with these names?

They are memorable, for one thing, and so the readers instantly can keep them straight; learning the names of major characters is always one of the readers’ tasks when picking up a book, so I cut them a rare break. For another, the names evoke an America that is past, for us almost as much as for the characters in the novel, which has some relevance in the West Virginia events. They also were an opportunity for irony. Unlike his namesake, an ambitious hero who charged into defeat, the George of the novel is a lazy loser who stumbles his way to success; the Ulysses of the novel is very much on the wrong side of the battles he picks, unlike (with apologies to my Southern friends) his namesake. There are more historical allusions when the scene shifts to the Black Hills.

7) Joelle, Selena and Maggie are very strong female characters. Did you make a conscious attempt to write strong and yet ruthless female characters?

Yes. We all draw on our own life experiences when creating characters, of course, and, though mixed and matched, the characteristics and dialogue of Joelle, Selena, and Maggie are not wholly invented. My lawyers tell me only the good characteristics are borrowed from real people, whereas the bad ones are entirely fictional.

Joelle wouldn’t think of herself as ruthless, though anyone in her way certainly would. She merely does what she needs to do to get her way, which, to her mind, is by definition the right thing. Ulysses, on the other hand, readily thinks of himself as ruthless and isn’t the least bit concerned about the right thing; he spouts propaganda to his followers, for example, but he considers them dolts for believing it. These characters are not intended to be a generalization of the difference in the ways that avaricious men and women pursue their ambitions. I won’t stick my foot that far in my mouth. However, misjudgment of the opposite sex (in both directions) does play a role in the plot more than once.

8) Where did your inspiration to have a major portion of the story told through court testimony come from?

The story required a flashback. The trial made this a natural, provided a subplot, and offered a resolution. Those are the reasons I adopted the idea. As for the source, I don’t know. Maybe I watched “Matlock” the night before.

9) What was the toughest part about writing this book?

Slicing away the excess during the edits. It is easier to write long than short – at least if you are conveying the same essential information – but short is more elegant. The first draft was a good 50% longer than the final one. I shortened speeches, tightened sentences, and cut out whole scenes and characters that weren’t sufficiently relevant to the theme or action. Still, one gets attached to one’s scenes and characters, even the peripheral ones, and, much like the memorabilia cluttering the attic, they are hard to throw out.

10) What was the most fun part of writing this book?

It is fun to put one’s feet up, daydream the next chapter, and, when someone asks what you are doing, say truthfully you are working. It also is fun to start writing that chapter and to find the characters insist on taking it in a different direction.

It is odd when characters hijack the plot, but this is a common experience. In fact, the company scarcely could be better. Mark Twain wrote that the eponymous “Pudd’nhead Wilson” was supposed to be a secondary character in a story about traveling Italian twins, but he kept pushing his way to the front. In the end, Twain gave up the fight and handed him the book. The twins even ceased to be twins, but he turned what he already had written about them into their own short story.

11) Is there something in this book you are particularly proud of?

I would like to meet all of the major characters. Obviously, I’m a bit prejudiced, but I think that means at least something about each of them turned out right.

12) Any writing or storytelling advice you'd like to share?

Handling exposition always is a challenge. Too little and the reader doesn’t know what is going on. Too much and the reader gets bored before the action starts and puts the book down. Do the minimum, but not less, and put what you can within the general text.

Set a minimum number of pages to write per day (mine was two). Don’t set it higher than you really can do on a bad day. Then, you’ll always make at least a little progress, and some days you’ll get on a roll and do page after page.

After the draft is done, cut the excess mercilessly.

Use Christopher Schenck for your cover art if you can get him. He was kind enough to do mine. Some of his work for Dark Horse Comics is here. http://www. darkhorse. com/Search/Christopher%20Schenck

13) If you could watch any movie tonight, what would it be?

Bogie and Bacall in “The Big Sleep”. Yes, I know that is not scifi – but neither is my noir-ish mystery novella “Trash.”

Monday, September 22, 2008

Killing the "nice guy" - Skeleton Crew: The Mist

It was interesting to read some of Stephen King's older short stories. For one thing, you got a glimpse of his style back in the mid 80's, when King was literally the King of horror. The stories in "Skeleton Crew" range from the 70's and go right up to 1985, when the book was first published. It contains an interesting collection of stories including the reliable monster under the bed tales, a twisted sci-fi romp, a meditation on death and a couple of poems. The mix of stories is solid and keeps you interested in seeing where he's going to go next.

One story in particular made me laugh, only because it was featured in a "Mystery Science Theater" film. It's the tale of a toy monkey that causes death each time he clashes his cymbals. King's story is pretty good, but the movie version is hilarious, and not on purpose. The movie was called "Merlin's Mystical Shop of Magical Wonders" and the monkey story is only part of the fun found within. I found a few of the tales in Skeleton Crew" to feel a bit stretched ("Gramma" feeling way too long for it's simple story), but I could also see hints of King's less horrific side (something that he let shine in his later work and in "Different Seasons").

Probably the best story of the bunch was the first, a novella called "The Mist". Recently this story was made into a feature film, and I can see its appeal. (Just warning you, there are going to be some serious spoilers here). The story starts with a family of three (Mom, Dad and son) enjoying a day in their house by the lake. Dad and son go for a quick trip to the market, and see some strange mist rolling across the lake as they leave. Upon reaching the store, the mist catches up and suddenly it becomes very obvious that the mist has brought something with it. Anyone venturing outside into the mist is immediately set upon by horrible creatures who want to do nothing more but messily devour humans. Dad and son are trapped in the supermarket with several other people. Panic sets in. Can they escape and if they do, is there any way out of the mist?

King does a great job of setting up our family, and putting the main characters into danger. The threat is real, random and vicious. The monsters can't be reasoned with, and are nearly invincible (it reminded me quite a bit of "Jurassic Park" in that respect). In addition to the creatures outside, there is simmering tension within. A highly unstable woman is convinced that the only way to stop the mist is to engage in human sacrifice. Yeah, real nice lady. It becomes important for the father and son to leave before the supermarket becomes a bloodbath. Allied with our main characters is a lowly checkout clerk named Ollie Weeks.

King goes out of his way to make us like Weeks. He is a nice enough guy (especially compared to the manager of the supermarket), but is described as a bit of a softy. When things start to go downhill, Weeks steps up. He is the voice of reason in the supermarket. He calms people down and gets everyone thinking clearly. He's not the leader of the group, but he offers advice and is rarely proven wrong. In addition it turns out that Weeks is the best shot of the group, and ends up with the only pistol the people in the market have access to. The little pudgy man becomes the key defender and hero of the group.

In a way it's obvious that Weeks has to go down. This is a horror story after all, and you can't have a knight in shining armor in a horror story: the readers won't feel any fear. King takes out some minor characters in quick and brutal ways, so we begin to doubt Weeks' role. But when he kills a creature with a well-placed shot, we breathe a sigh of relief. Even when the crazy woman has gathered disciples to her and is hunting down the little boy for their sacrifice it is Weeks to does what no one else can - he kills the ranting woman with the pistol. He saves the leads, but in that moment he dooms himself. He's killed another human, just like the monsters outside. On the flip side, the crazy woman was just as dangerous as the monsters, and so it fits that Weeks is able to stop both of them.

A small group makes a run for the lead character's car. They are attacked on the way and it's brutal. Weeks makes it to the car door and is very suddenly and swiftly killed. It happens so quickly that I found myself re-reading the sentence again. In a way it's King showing two things. First, he doesn't want Weeks to suffer, so his death is quick and final. Second, he wants to up the danger for our leads. Weeks is the brave knight and with him gone, do the heroes have a chance? The story ends on an ambiguous note, with the mist already covering much of Maine and our group still driving south hoping to find an end to it and a reprieve from the monsters.

Does the set up, execution and death of Ollie Weeks seem a bit technical? It does, but the story is told in such a way that you don't really notice it, and even if you do, it's still effective. I liked Weeks quite a bit and felt bad enough about his sudden death to go back and reread that sentence. It was only from the technical point of view that I was able to see his place in the narrative. In the depths of the story he works perfectly and if I had read the story in one sitting (possible for a faster reader than me), I'm guessing it works great.

A character like this is very important in horror fiction, or anywhere where thrills and suspense need to be generated. The key is to make the character believable, likable and set them up as an innocent, or heroic figure. Then at a key moment, you kill them off. If you do this right, the reader is going to gasp and feel "If the writer can kill off the 'nice guy', what hope the leads have?" Then you've got them where you want them.

Can you think of any other effective 'nice guy' characters? What did you think of "The Mist" in either the novel or movie form? Have you read an a non-effective use of the 'nice guy'? Why didn't it work?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Switch it up - Bloody Mary

I imagine that one of the toughest things to do is to keep a series going.  It doesn't matter if it's a series of novels, series of television episodes or movie series - you have one goal, keep people wanting more.  There is a balance to keep.  On the one hand you have to keep the stories fresh and interesting.  On the other you can't change things too much, or you will alienate your readers/watchers.  This becomes a big challenge for nonconsecutive stories.  For example: if the "Friday the 13th" movie series decided to become a musical comedy/horror around the fifth installment - some of the audience may be upset.  (of course I think that's a great idea and would make a hilarious movie!  Do it!  Do it!)

There is also the dreaded Sophomore slump, a rule that says that the second outing is usually a poor relation to the first.  Sometimes the writer tries too hard to make it fresh, sometimes they try too hard to make it familiar.  Either way can make for a disappointing installment.  When I sat down with "Bloody Mary" I decided to see what author J.A. Konrath did to make this story fresh and familiar.

Right off the bat he starts with the familiar: the first chapter puts us in the mind of the killer.  The second chapter puts us back into detective Jack Daniels' mind and we get our bearings.  Old characters are introduced and some of the dilemmas take root here.  It was nice to see the humor was back, as well as the craziness that seemed to plague Jack in the first book.

What about the fresh?  Konrath does an interesting move, in which he allows the killer to be revealed and caught at about the half way point of the book.  Interesting.  Then he added a courtroom twist, in which the killer uses the fact that he had a brain tumor (which was removed after his capture), and it caused him to do the horrible deeds.  However the reader is privy to the man's twisted mind.  It is very apparent he is not "cured", in fact he is just waiting for his best opportunity to escape and track Jack and her family down.

This switch in the plot kept things interesting, and even allowed us to focus a bit on Jack's personal life, as well as the way her job starts to affect those around her.  I also enjoyed the subplot involving her partner's mid-life crisis.  

The end of the novel is the final showdown - just what we expect.  It's over the top and really pretty gruesome (the whole book seems to up the gore factor here), but it was a satisfying end to the tale.

I think Konrath did a good job keeping me off balance with his novel.  I was not expecting the murderer to be caught so quickly, and at the same time I enjoyed the subplots and supporting characters.  It was a solid follow-up and a quick read for summer.  I'll be interested to see where Konrath goes in the third book.  He's used serial killers twice and while he did switch things up a bit here, a third round of the same may be a bit much.  He's got some solid and entertaining characters here: I think it's time he pushed them a bit further and make things a little more interesting next time around.

Have you ever read a second book of a series that kept things in a good balance of Fresh and Familiar?  Have you attempted to do that same, and what obstacles did you face with the second story?  What did you think of "Bloody Mary"?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Say it all by saying nothing - 2001: A Space Odyssey

Usually when a list is made of some of the greatest films of all time, "2001: A Space Odyssey" ends up on it.  You always see it on a list of the best sci-fi films of all time, and I've even read some reviews that declare it the greatest movie of all time: period.  I'm a fan of the film, I think it's very well made and served as inspiration for several other films from things as silly as "Mystery Science Theater: The Movie" to the Japanese animated film "Akira".

But there is a flip side to all this adulation.  I've met several people, especially when I worked at the video store, that absolutely hated the film or at the least found it to be very boring and lacking in substance.  Arguments against the film include: it's pretentious, the bookend sequences don't have anything to do with anything, there are too many shots that glorify special effects over story telling, the basic story is so simple that it could be told in 30 minutes - Kubrick stretches it over two hours, the music is too annoying to allow the viewer to focus on the film.

One of the things the movie does - and this is what splits people the most- is that it keeps everything very ambiguous.  The movie is presented primarily in visuals, sound and music. It seems to shy away from direct narrative.  By reducing the narrative to images, sounds and music the message of the film is not focused, it becomes this nebulous thing.  This accounts for the amazing variety of interpretations of the film.  I've heard people say the movie is about alien life guiding our evolution.  I've heard it's about the way man evolves because of technology.  I've heard people say it's about God's guidance of man kinds journey into space.  None of these things seems very alike.

Part of the issue is the fact that black monolith is never clearly defined.  Great importance is placed on this image, signaled by the music (which overwhelms most of the other sounds) and the way the monolith is usually filmed - it towers over the other characters, and seems to cause them to look up toward it.  But what is that monolith?  The only clues you get are related to the context of the monolith's appearance and the events that follow it's appearance.

What it comes down to is what you think of this ambiguity.  Does the fact that the director doesn't seem to take a stance mean that he is being obtuse on purpose?  And if he is being obtuse does that make him pretentious?  Or is "2001" a perfect example of sloppy film making?

When it comes to the last question, I can say that if "2001" isn't anything, it's sloppy.  It is very controlled, and the amount of detail, the editing, the selection of shots and angles shows that this a film maker who had a definite idea that he was trying to get across.  If that idea was ambiguity itself - well that's another thing all together.  I enjoy films that make you think, that don't give you all the pieces and let you decide what the narrative or even the theme are.  "2001" is one of the best films to offer that type of movie experience.  David Lynch offers his dark vision of the inner journeys of his characters (especially in "Eraserhead" and "Inland Empire") and he is often accused of being obtuse and self indulgent.

When it comes down to it, I don't think "2001" is ever going to fall off those lists.  It is a unique film and a pioneer in many ways and for that alone it deserves praise.  For those of us who enjoy the ambiguity, we'll always find ourselves returning to space and another viewing of that black monolith.

What are your thoughts on “2001” - great film or overrated critic bait? Do you think that if a director (or writer) leaves things ambiguous that it makes the pretentious or lazy? What do you think the greatest sci-fi film yet made should be?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Nothing is for Free - The Gods Themselves

I ran into a recording by famed science fiction author Isaac Asimov and he mentioned that while he felt that he would be known for the "Foundation" series, he felt that he would like to be known for "The Gods Themselves".  I had checked out the "Foundation" trilogy back in my high school days and had reread them a couple of times.  But I had never really ventured into his other works.  Asimov tends to be on the dry side and I find that I have to be in the mood for his style.  Well, it just so happens that I was in the mood for his style and decided to seek out this book and see what I thought about it.

First thing I discovered was that I needed to review some of my knowledge of nuclear fission and fusion.  It's part of the main conceit of the novel and while I know a little about the subject, I was pretty rusty.  But after I got some on-line reading done on the subject I was OK.  For the most part the science aspect of the novel didn't go over my head.  Asimov usually has a layman character around who needs some additional explanation, so I often got up to speed.

The basic story for the novel revolves around the appearance of a massive amount of free energy.  All we have to do is leave some Tungsten hanging around, and a portal to another universe opens. The tungsten is traded for a radioactive and unstable bit of plutonium.  But this Plutonium creates a large amount of radiation as it decomposes in our universe (it is very stable where it came from).  This exchange with the parallel universe is wonderful, we get free energy in exchange for Tungsten we weren't using anyway.  Of course we all know that if something is too good to be true, then it probably isn't true.

This isn't free at all.  Each time the exchange is made, other things come from the parallel dimension.  Most importantly the actual laws that define that universe cross into ours and start affecting things.  Most dangerous is the idea that our sun would start being affected by these laws causing it to become unstable and explode.   Yeah, not a good thing.  The problem is that no one wants to acknowledge this or do anything about it because they love their free energy!

The novel is split into three parts.  The first deals with a scientist bent on proving that the exchange is causing more harm than good.  The middle section takes us to the parallel universe and delves into what is driving those beings to make the exchange in the first place.  The last section deals with the people of the colonized moon and how their advances in technology may save us all - unless they have another agenda...

This split carries the basics of the story from one section to the other, but there are interesting sub-themes to each section.  Most of the first part is driven by the ego's of the scientists involved.  The discovery of the exchange would not have been made without one of the scientists feeling like he was the little fish in the big pond.  In turn, the danger of the exchange would not have been discovered, unless the scientist hadn't been snubbed by the illustrious founder of the exchange.  The second section offers us a view of life forms that are interdependent and yet are very much separated.  This creates a struggle between the beings, and one that is resolved in an interesting way.  This theme of connection also goes back to how our universes are connected and what happens in one can affect what happens in the other.  The final section on the moon makes a statement about colonial attitudes and how the one-time colony now wants to break away.

I wasn't too surprised to find that the three sections were published separately.  This makes some sense, as each one carries it's own theme in addition to the overriding theme dealing with the "free energy".  What this reminded me was that good science fiction (and I'm not talking about Space Opera - like "Star Wars") is about ideas and themes.  This book is heavy on the dialogue and there really isn't much action.  What action there is happens in laboratories and testing environments.  The middle portion of the book is the most entertaining to read, because it deals with the alien beings and their perceptions.  It's more of a character story with some mystery thrown in, and the alien perspective is intriguing.  That's not to say that the bookend sections are weak, but they are very focused on ideas over action.  I was in the mood for that, so I didn't mind.  But I know it's one of the things that some readers find dull about Asimov.

"The Gods Themselves" is a novel rich in ideas, and it made me wonder if this kind of fiction is still popular.  People don't seem to like to slow down and think so much now.  And most of the books about writing I have read stress the movement of plot, the importance of action and the feeling that if you have a theme or two in your story, it's a lucky accident.  Reading something like this reminds me that books don't always have to fall in such a narrow view.

Do you think a book can balance multiple themes without become a talky bore?  Is science fiction better when it focuses on ideas over plot?  What do you think of this book or Asimov in general?