Monday, August 31, 2009

Art is staring you in the face – Pearls before Breakfast

The Best Non-required Reading for 2008 included all kinds of interesting bits of writing. It had non-fiction essays on whale hunters and Bill Clinton. It had excerpts from graphic novels. It included an interview with Judy Blume. Stephen King had a story in there. There was even a list of some very interesting Facebook groups.

But the one piece that I found the most interesting was called “Pearls before Breakfast”. It was about one of those social experiments you read about sometimes. You know the kind, where they have a crowd of people and one person acts like a madman and the scientists see how the crowd reacts. This was very similar but with a little twist.

World famous violin maestro, Joshua Bell took a priceless violin, went into a D.C. subway station, plunked down the open violin case with some seeding money and treated anybody who walked by to a free concert. Of course the area was infiltrated with reporters keeping their eyes on the crowd and watching reactions. Then they would catch up with anyone whose reaction was notable and interview them.

The piece contains a myriad of reactions from all kinds people: from commuters trying to catch a train, to a man who worked in a small bakery inside the station. The results weren’t too surprising. Very few people noticed that Bell was even playing. Only one person recognized him at all. And he didn’t make much money at all.

I urge you to seek out the whole article if you can, it’s a fascinating read and one that disturbs and fascinates me all at the same time. What I want to explore a bit here is the way we seem to have been able to ignore our surroundings.

Many of the people interviewed didn’t even notice Bell was there. The few that did remember seeing a guy with a violin don’t really remember if he was any good or not, they just remember a guy with a violin. The few people that did actually notice Bell and knew he was good had backgrounds in music.

So even if most of the people there were indifferent to classical music (not hard to believe. Most people I know care little for it), you would think they would be able to tell if someone of genius level skill was among them, right?

Maybe not, maybe people are so conditioned to ignore their surroundings and focus only on their immediate goals that they won’t notice if a genius is there standing next to them unleashing a huge amount of beauty into the air for all to enjoy. I believe it. People walk around with their music players on or their cell phones latched onto their ears. Maybe they are thumbing through their blackberry or iphone. Maybe they are just going over the upcoming challenges of the day. But it’s safe to say that few of these people even notice the changes in the world around them, unless they directly affect them.

I keep saying they, but I mean me too. I have my trusty ipod in my pocket as I do chores around the house or yard work. I listen to what is familiar, I watch what is familiar, hell I even eat what is familiar. It’s a big deal when I leave my little box, and I think most people fall into the same boat.

But this has been going on for decades. I read an article from the 80’s talking about the Japanese and their trains. The writer was an American, from the east coast. He is used to trains and buses, but he had never seen anything like what he encountered on the Japanese train. Few people spoke or looked at each other. Instead most had some kind of newspaper or comic book (manga). And many of the younger passengers had the then new walkmans. The writer was filled with wonder at the fact that these people could basically step aboard a train, and then seal themselves into their own world of music and manga and not even interact with anyone else. He thought that kind of behavior would be strange in the US

Jump forward a couple decades and now it’s normal. People look at you strangely if you try to have a conversation on a train or bus. Isolation into the familiar has become typical.

What does this have to do with storytelling? Well it tells us writers that it may not matter if we write the greatest book the world has ever known. If we can’t get anyone to read it, it will remain unknown. And even if you step into a crowd and start reading it, don’t expect anyone to listen. Most of us aren’t Joshua Bell.

But if the article did tell me anything it pointed out that beauty can be right in front of you. Maybe we all need to take some time to actually look around us and see what we may be missing. What does the world sound like without your music playing?

Did you read the article about Mr. Bell and his DC train station experiment? What did you think of it? Would you have noticed a genius playing the violin right next to you? Can people even recognize beauty anymore?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Third Time’s a Charm - Rusty Nail

I was in the mood for some light summer reading so I picked up J.A. Konrath’s third book in his Jack Daniels series. For those of you who don’t know, Mr. Konrath is an active blogger and offers plenty of tips for writers. So I’m always interested in looking at how he approaches his novels.

Now Jack Daniels is a thriller series about a police detective who gets mixed up in dangerous cases. Konrath mixes danger, comedy and drama pretty well in all three books, but I was specifically interested to see how he would tackle book three.

He took a bit of an unexpected tactic. He based this case off of the events that occurred in the first book. At first Jack thinks she’s dealing with a copy cat killer, especially since the case from the first book was very high profile. But as things go along, it becomes obvious to the reader (and eventually to Jack) that this is something new – but tied very closely to first book.

Now Konrath has stated that his books are meant to be picked up and enjoyed, no matter what order you find them. He calls them airport reading, and I can see that. They offer quick, fun escape reading, perfect if you need to put it down, but just catchy enough to keep you reading.

This makes the prospect of tying back to the first book dangerous. You end up having to sum up the first case so that new readers won’t be completely lost. But at the same time you have to keep the exposition down to a minimum, because momentum and thrills are very important to this genre.

Konrath’s solution makes good sense, he has Jack think about the older case, specifically in how it relates to the current one. He actually makes it tantalizing, give a new reader enough to be interested (and maybe pick up that first book). Jack goes back to the old evidence to see if there is anything that matches with the evidence on the new case. This little journey triggers memories for Jack and for any reader who may not have picked up “Whiskey Sour” in a while (I read that book about a year and half ago, so my memories weren’t too sharp either).

As Jack gets closer and closer to putting the pieces together, the more the past plays into the story, but Konrath never bogs things down. He manages to keep the balance going and the story chugs along to it’s crazed conclusion.

This gives book three a different tone compared to the previous two books. Obviously the first “Whiskey Sour” was the intro novel. The follow up “Bloody Mary” was much more intense and graphic. It also moved at a very high speed. This book slowed down the pace a bit more and focused more on piecing the puzzle together and delving into Jack’s character a bit more. The element of the past plays a key role in the story and gives it a theme all it’s own.

So Konrath kept the series fresh feeling, even if he did end up with a serial killer on the lose as the basic plot again. The twists were pretty good and the identity of the killer had me guessing for a good while, but this time I did figure it out a few chapters before Jack did. I’m interested to see where he goes in book four. Will he keep the serial killer, or will Jack face a new type of danger? All in all, I found “Rusty Nail” to be a good read and an interesting study in keeping a series fresh.

Have you read “Rusty Nail”? What did you think of it? Do you have a favorite 3rd book or movie in a series? How did the writer keep the book feeling fresh and different?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Back into Hell – The Descent

You can’t get away from the underworld. No matter how old the story is, or how new fangled the tale proposes to be: there is always a moment where the main character must descend into the dark heart of the world and face the most brutal of fears.

Not too long ago I did a blog about “The Writer’s Journey” a book that explained how to use and understand the mythic hero’s quest style of storytelling. The journey into the underworld is a key moment in that mythic structure, and you see it in many forms in stories.

Sometimes it’s obvious, like in the Greek myth of Orpheus. The famous poet literally go into Hades to find his dead love and bring her back to the world of the living. He faces many trials and tests and completes most of them. But it is the final test, what should be the simplest, that ends up betraying Orpheus and causes him to turn from a hero into a tragic character. Find a good book of Greek myths and give the tale a re-read, it’s actually a great example of Underworld mythology.

Want something a bit more recent and less B.C. How about the most recent Star Trek film? The finale of the film takes place aboard the dark and dangerous Romulan space ship. Kirk and Spock must sneak inside, wander around in the darkness, face the king of the underworld (Nero in this case) and rescue the captured companion (Captain Pike). It’s the last major test for the heroes, one that ends up changing all of them and pushing them to their limits.

Well enough of those examples, let’s take a look at the book I read, Jeff Long’s “The Descent”. The title itself is a bit of a give away, but the bulk of the story is a journey into the underworld. The premise is simple, hell does exist and it is revealed to be a huge network of underground caverns that houses a civilization of beings that aren’t quite human, but seem to be a splinter of homo sapien.

Soon, “hell” is invaded by countries, armies and corporations. They do their best to eradicate the “demons” below but things might not be as easy as that. The main story follows an expedition that is sent into hell. It is comprised of scientists and a mercenary band for protection from the “demons”. At first the journey seems to be simple, straightforward exploration of a new frontier (very “Journey to the Center of the Earth”). But it becomes apparent that there are different loyalties among the group and that an operative among them might have a very different goal. Following along with this main story is a side story about a group of scholars and their search for Satan. They figure that since hell turned out to be a real place, that Satan must be real too, or at least based in historical fact. This search provides some clues that end up affecting the readers perception of what the explorers are experiencing.

So very literally Jeff Long has created an underworld and based his whole novel on the search and exploration of this world. The explorers initial journey into hell is actually one of the best parts of the book. It seems to be a simple matter of taking a colossal elevator/train to the bottom of the sea and then traveling in the underground corridors to the frontier settlements. But Long does a good job of allowing the reader to follow along with Ali, a nun who specializes in languages. Her journey from the upper world, the only one she’s known, down into the darkness of hell is actually the crux of the story. By giving you Ali’s perspective the reader feels the weight of the journey. As she travels deeper into the earth, the more the reader feels her wonder and her horror at the discoveries.

Of course no one can journey into the underworld and not change. Ali is an interesting character because as a nun she has seen horrors. She worked with the poor in Africa, and saw the toll that war and famine could take on humans. What she sees in hell is a new type of basic and elemental drive – something primal and almost bestial. It challenges what she felt she understood. This includes not only her teachings as a nun, but also what she felt was the basics of humanity. At the end of the story Ali is a very different person.

Ali is only one of several characters who makes the descent and each of them is changed in different ways. The book is interesting in its take on the underworld, and is worth reading for these elements (as a whole the book was good, but something was missing to make it a real knock out). It was interesting to see what Long did with his concept of making the underworld a real place.

What are your favorite stories the feature a plunge into “The Underworld”? Have you read “The Descent” or any of its follow up novels? Do you think the use of “the underworld” is a valid storytelling technique or is it too cliché?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Vampires Bite – Dracula

Over at one of my favorite DVD review sites (DVD Verdict), there is a particular reviewer who enjoys horror films. He gets to review quite a few, but lately he’s been lamenting the sad vampire flicks he’s had to watch.

Over at Reelviews, one of my favorite movie reviewers did a whole blog about the pathetic state of vampire films and how the mighty Dracula has fallen.

I even ran into a coworker who was disgusted with vampire movies, manga and anime. He recommended a good anime series where vampires “actually acted like creatures from hell”.

It seems like there is some kind of problem with the current state of vampires in fiction. Some of it comes from over-exposure. As the reviewer at DVD Verdict is quick to point out, nearly one out of every five horror films he ends up reviewing is a vampire flick (of course 3 out of the five end up being zombie flicks, but that can be another blog). You see enough of these movies and after a while they all end up feeling the same.

Then there is the whole Anne Rice issue. She took vampires and turned them into tortured souls who yearn for something greater than what they are. She fused Romance novel sensibilities into a gothic horror and created a genre unto itself: and it’s successful. I know lots of people who enjoy Rice’s work and the work of others who have fallen in line with her creation (the Twilight books being the most recent reincarnation).

Hell, I admit that one of my favorite shows, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” had it’s share of romantic vampires, but there was a good balance of real monsters and vampires that would sooner tear your throat out before they even start spouting philosophy. So I think you can say that Buffy at least covered all it’s bases.

At its core, the vampire myth is a horror cornerstone. You have a creature that appears to be human and yet it must drain the life out of a living human to survive. This fuses the vampire into a strange beast/human hybrid, one that must kill to survive. Keep in mind, this is a basic description and you can apply it to monsters that aren’t strictly vampires (at least in the standard gothic book of monsters). You can have something like the Wendigo that drains the soul of a human, leaving on a shell behind. Or something like the salt drainer from the Original series of Star Trek.

The element that makes the vampire appealing is that fusion of beast and human. It’s easy to see how this mix can be turned into something romantic or erotic. You have a human that must kill to live, and yet it’s so human-like, it could be appealing. The lure of danger is strong.

Did the most famous of vampires, Dracula, have this uncanny draw for women? Unfortunately I don’t have the book handy. As far as I remember, it’s never specifically stated. Dracula is deadly, hungry and clever. He bides his time, manipulating others and sneaking around. Sure he ends up claiming poor Lucy, and turning her into a creature of the night, but as far as I recall, he never gets romantic with her. It’s more the horror of draining her slowly and then killing her off.

When Coppola made his version of the story in 1992, he strove to keep the story close the original book, and succeeded in parts. But in the end, even he injected more romance into the story, creating a Beauty and the Beast version of the tale. I actually enjoy the movie a great deal (wonderful visuals, an awesome score and arresting sound effects), I just wish the casting had been a bit better. I actually would love to see the film as a silent movie, with title cards or subtitles instead of the spoken dialogue and the rich score guiding the story.

Back to the issue at hand - do people want actual fictional vampires to be scary any more? Has the vampire gone from being a monster and been transformed into a bad boy/girl with severe anemia? Or is there another answer. Has the vampire just become a very versatile character – one that can be used in a variety of situations and appeal to a variety of audiences?

Either way, I find it difficult to even think of writing a story including a vampire character. Is there anything that hasn’t been done with the bloodsucker? And if not, does it even matter?

What do you think of vampires in current fiction? Have you seen a resent vampire story that didn’t feel like the same old story? Why do you think people are drawn to this creature?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Ticket to the Future is Always Open – Trigun

In the final part of my three-part Cowboy/Space Opera anime examination, I’m taking a look at the series “Trigun”. Back when this show first came out (and had regular rotation on Cartoon Network’s “Toonami” block), it was a popular series. Remembering the animation cons I attended back in the day always bring back memories of several folks dressed as characters from the series: especially Vash the Stampede.

Now Vash makes a pretty big impression on anyone who’s ever seen an episode of Trigun. He’s a tall man, with spiky blonde hair, a bright red long coat, yellow sunglasses and a really huge revolver. He’s a striking figure when you first see him in the opening credits, standing in the desert with the blazing suns overhead. The opening credits go out of their way to show you just how cool Vash really is (especially with the hard edged electric guitar wailing away in the background).

But if you spend any amount of time with the man, you begin to notice things. First off, he’s a complete and total goofball. In the series, Vash never looks serious for very long. Give him a few minutes and he’ll warp his face into some stupid or grotesque way, courtesy of the Japanese technique of super-deformation. His voice actor has to be able to deliver deadly serious threats one second and completely lame jokes, or insane screaming the next.

In the first five episodes, it’s very difficult to get a grasp on the character of Vash the Stampede. You find out early on that he is responsible for destroying a town and killing everyone in it. He’s got a huge reward on his head for the destruction he’s caused. People fear him or are hunting him down for the cash reward. He’s supposed to be an expert marksman, and one that would rather kill you than look at you. He’s a complete and total Wild West bad ass.

When you finally meet him, he’s a coward. He runs away from just about every fight he get’s involved in. He doesn’t draw his gun for about three episodes and never fires it till episode five. He hits on anything thing remotely female. He makes horrible puns and jokes. His mantra is “Love and Peace” flashing the “V” for victory hand signal. In short - he’s a total freak.

I know a few people who dislike the show because of these early episodes, but they are essential to the character of Vash the Stampede. Looking back on the show it’s very clear that the entire story is motivated and revolves around Vash. He is the backbone of the tale and if the audience doesn’t like him or doesn’t connect with him, then they usually end up disliking the series.

There is a very interesting element introduced in the first episode. Vash the Stampede will not kill someone and will allow anyone around him to be killed. He will go out of his way, including putting himself in very real danger to make sure no one is killed. This includes his enemies. This makes Vash an interesting paradox. After all his is responsible for decimating an entire town, down to the last child.

As the series continues more and more strands are revealed. When someone does end up dead around him (be they friend or foe), Vash takes it very hard, often blaming himself for being unable to help or save the person. He rarely shoots anyone with his gun. Instead he will shoot near them to startle them, or shoot an object nearby to create a diversion. He can take a huge amount of punishment, more than a normal character in the series can take. You begin to suspect that Vash may not be entirely human and further evidence presents secrets to his past.

The first half of the series is constructed to create a very balanced picture of Vash the Stampede and the world he inhabits. Most of the adventures in this half seem like one off stories. You could probably watch them in any order and not be too lost. Some introduce key supporting characters like Nicholas Wolfwood or Millie and Meryl (the Insurance Girls), but mostly we learn about our protagonist. Then around the halfway point, we meet a man who claims to be part of a deadly group of assassins called The Gung-ho Guns.

Once these folks appear things take a turn for the dark. The world Vash inhabits is a brutal place of deserts, blazing suns, little water and advanced technology without the knowledge of how to use it. The people he encounters are struggling to survive on the hostile planet and death is very real. Many times the people seem too eager to mete out death and punishment and Vash does his best to curb these instincts; but they are ingrained in the world and the story. Once the second half kicks in, these elements continue to increase.

The result not only allows us to know and understand Vash better, but to see him sorely tested. With each passing episode Vash fights against the things that would keep the world from being peaceful. It seems to be losing battle.

The finale is a brutal and cold piece of work. Vash faces the antithesis of everything he believes, and it is forcing his hand to do what he can not do – willingly take a life.

For my vote, “Trigun” is the best of the these three series. Vash is one of the most memorable and interesting characters I’ve run into in an anime series. His character is fully fleshed out and the series builds with each episode. At the end, his character is tested, his beliefs are challenged and he begins to question his values. This conflict brings the drama home, and we understand that the battle within Vash is a battle we may all share.

Have you seen “Trigun”? What did you think of the series? What is one of your favorite book, movie or television examples where a character drives the action and conflict of a story. Why did this work so well?