500 Words tonight

Not my personal best.  Not by a long shot.  I'd like to blame research, and certainly that's part of it, but it's also the realization that, even though I have the story pretty fully formed in my head, there's a huge amount of data I need to try to impart to the reader in just under 7,500 words.  I'm also finally having to face the luminaries whose props and people I am borrowing.  The high concept description I've given is "Korak vs. Kurtz," but it also incorporates H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, with cameos appearances by characters from Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle.  A part of me is, despite seeing the whole tale in my head, pretty intimidated.

But it's progress.  And damned if even only five hundred words of a story that's been brewing in my head for over a year isn't making me a little giddy.
I'm going to do something I almost never do, and provide the opening bits of the work in progress.  While I don't expect comments, I hope sharing at least this little bit, and maybe one or two others within the next few days, to give prospective readers (all three of them) a taste of my latest piece of fiction.  

For those who don't know, this is for the Gorilla of the Gasbags challenged posed by Mark Finn, Bill Crider, Rick Klaw, and the other usual suspects at Armadillocon last year.


iPhone Pics 09-07-2011 021

The Savage Solution: A Romance


Derek Austin Johnson

Standing at the stern of the steamship, Jack Clayton glanced at his pocket watch and scanned the banks of the Congo.  A curtain of mist drew across the still evergreens along the riverbank.  A fine spray from the paddle wheel filmed the watch's crystal and slicked his face and seeped into his wrinkling linen suit.

It would be dark soon.  The captain—an unwholesome trading station manager who only agreed to charter this ill-maintained vessel after persuasion by Jack and the company man—would turn off the engines and take refuge in a cramped cabin with the bottle of scotch and the black stuff supplied to him by the consulting detective from London.  

Jack returned the pocket watch to his vest and leaned against the warm brass railing, his face lined with concentration as he listened to the living landscape beyond the clanging engine.  Since the white mist occluded most of the bank and spilled into the still blue river itself, he had to rely on his acute hearing and sense of smell.  

Footsteps clicked behind him.   Meriem stood at his side, her gloved hand gently brushing his.  She tucked a lock of black hair that had tumbled from her wide-brimmed hat behind her ear and examined him.  “You hear it, too, don’t you, love?”   Although they had only been to England a few times since his mother took up residence there, Meriem quickly adopted an accent that overpowered her lilting French.  Jack nodded, and she squeezed his fingers, her deep brown face weighted with concern.

“Hear what, Killer?”  The voice behind them was stuffy and pinched, as if its owner was trying to speak through his nose.

Jack faced the company man, so nondescript and colorless that Jack found it impossible to believe he had been a sea captain.  “Silence,” Jack said finally.  “I cannot hear the voice of a single bonobo or the call of any martins.  Even the termites aren’t feeding on the living wood.”

The company man’s eyes wandered to the riverbank.  He huffed.  “I hear jungle.  Leaves and maybe some barnyard grass rustling.  Normal sounds in this part of the world.  Maybe learning to be a mechanician has dulled your ears.”  A snide grin spread across his face.  “Or you’ve spent so much time playing gentleman that you’ve forgotten what it’s all supposed to sound like.  Forgotten the savage within.”

Anger rushed through Jack, but Meriem touched his arm and he let it subside.  “No, Charles,” he said finally, taking some pride as the company man bristled at the use of his Christian name.  “If you’d lived here any time at all, actually grew to love it, you would be able to smell the scales of the elephantfish and tetras, recognize the waves in the river as they passed.  Go inland, and you would recognize the brown-and-white carapace of each beetle.  These aren’t things you forget, not when you’ve lived so closely with them.  I know them intimately.”

The company man smirked and cast a brief eye at Meriem.  “Yes, I’m sure you and your wife have a very intimate relationship with the jungle and its inhabitants.”

Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson, and American Magic Realism

We went to see Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson's latest effort, at a noontime matinee at the Arbor Great Hills yesterday. Along with the sweet and understated Safety Not Guaranteed, it turned out to be one of the best movies I've seen this year. This surprised me somewhat because, from the beginning, I've been ambivalent about Anderson's work. Bottle Rocket and Rushmore showed that he possessed a good cinematic eye, some unexpected comic timing, and a genuine love for his characters, but the former never shook off its obvious status as a freshmen effort, and the latter felt like Anderson was trying too hard to make a breakout picture. I hated The Royal Tennenbaums with a passion; ostensibly a sprawling family drama in the tradition of Robert Altman, it unspooled from its reels as messily as Paul Thomas Anderson's equally insufferable Magnolia: bloated, messy, and wearing every second of its independent cred on its sleeve. Don't even mention The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Just don't.

Moonrise Kingdom

Yet I've never been able to write him off completely. I see elements of not only of some of my favorite filmmakers--Altman and Stanley Kubrick for two--but also see elements of writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Michael Chabon: the worlds he visits are skewed ever so slightly off from ours, even when they otherwise seem completely grounded. I felt this with The Darjeeling Limited, and felt it even more so with Moonrise Kingdom, which possess elements of the adventure story that Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) reads. There isn't a single fantasy element in the entire picture, yet fantasy infuses everything from the faded green and yellow hues to the Benjamin Britten music. It's a quest movie where the object is, frankly, a bit of magic itself.

Do yourself a favor and find it in your area. Along with Safety Not Guaranteed, it's one of the best quasi-genre movies you'll see this summer.

Things I Want to Do

Quite a few, actually.

For starters, this blog has pretty much been dead space since September of last year--hardly what one expects of a writer. So as part of my resolution, I'm planning on updating far more regularly, if not daily then at least every other day. One entry in four months is not the most sluglike I've ever been, but it's enough to make even my own credentials as a writer.

To that end, I may decide to move this blog to another site, perhaps Wordpress or even--really going back to the future--Blogger. I haven't decided yet. But I do see myself updating, regardless of my location. If I decide to close this site down, I'll redirect everybody to my new digs.

Oh, and Installment Twenty-Two of Watching the Future is up at SF Site. This time I discuss, admittedly halfheartedly, upcoming skiffy movies.

Other than that, all I'll say is, "Happy 2012."

The 24 Types of Libertarian

I usually don't do political stuff (and really, you'd be surprised at how many Libertarian principles I generally agree with), but this is pretty funny.

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Back from the Dead

Holidays and a change of employment took precedence over blogging lately. But it doesn't mean I've been silent. So, with that in mind, and with the time allowed by inclement weather in Central Texas, I'll provide a couple of recent updates. First, the latest installment of Watching the Future has been posted by the terrific people at SF Site. This time out, I talk about the the cinematic fallow period that always comes after the Holidays, and how easy it has become easy to weather.

This replenishing used to be somewhat challenging. Television was an option before the 80s (and in my case it was pretty much the only option), though it was often a frustrating one. Yes, the black-and-white twelve-inch screen perched on my dresser in my mother's Houston apartment provided my initial exposure to some classic genre movies (Dracula, The Vampire Lovers, Robinson Crusoe on Mars), a couple of masterpieces (Casablanca, though I was too young to understand it at the time, Some Like It Hot, and Howard Hawks's The Searchers) and lots and lots of guilty pleasures (one of the Houston stations played Japanese monster movies from twelve to two every Saturday afternoon, which, when coupled with Saturday morning cartoons, pretty much meant my morning was booked). However, watching a movie on television meant sitting through commercials carelessly scattered across a movie's running time, breaking up a movie's rhythm and disallowing a full appreciation. Cable was available but expensive, but even in those homes that had it, one didn't see many movies more than ten years old.

One often relied on revival houses, college campuses, and conventions (I first saw Roy Rowland's The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T at an Armadillocon in 1988 or 1989) for older movies uninterrupted by commercials. Many colleges ran film programs featuring a mixture of old and new movies, and were open to the public for a fee. Until the late 80s, many theaters would stay open past midnight on Friday and Saturday nights to run more esoteric fare (which is how I first saw Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo and David Lynch's Eraserhead).

So options were available if you were a serious moviegoer in need of a fix before the summer began.

And in the 80s, all of that changed.

You can read the full article here.

Additionally, I was also asked by to contribute to the latest Mind Meld over at SF Signal. This time, my esteemed colleagues (who include Lucius Shepard, Nancy Kress, Mary Robinette Kowal and Chris Nakashima-Brown) answer the question, "What was the last science fiction film that surprised you in a good way? What about in a bad way? Explain why." I was pleased to see Lucius Shepard show some love for Gareth Edwards's sublime science ficiton movie Monsters.

Maybe I've become cynical, but few modern science fiction and fantasy movies surprise me anymore. Most look stunning - hardly difficult in the days when Kerry Conran can create the visual effects necessary to bring Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow to life - but remain bereft of any of the things that make print science fiction so worthwhile. It's not just scientific inaccuracies that make something unwatchable; I can forgive those if I see something visionary and interesting. Unfortunately, most genre movies are so predictable that I can set my watch by them. Granted, things like Event Horizon, The Book of Eli, and The Island are fun in their low way, but I wasn't at all surprised by their utter lack of intelligence or plodding execution.

And as a bonus, I just learned that my review of Darren Aronofsky's movie Black Swan was just selected as one of the Top 25 SF Signal Posts for January 2011. I am honored.

Stay warm.

So You Want to Write a Novel

Saw this on Adam-Troy Castro's Facebook page. I haven't written a novel yet, but I've had this conversation far too often with a number of individuals, even with people who tell me, "Well, you've done all this other writing, why don't you write a novel? It can't be that hard." At those times my teeth sound like grinding plate tectonics.

Column Notification and Reviews

With all that's occurred over the past two months, I have been negligent in updating this particular sliver of cyberspace, so let me attempt to correct this gross oversight.

In the first place, we have Installment Eight of my monthly column Watching the Future, in which I try to figure out why, in light of Damien Walter's Guardian article, there aren't more cinematic science fiction masterpieces.

In 1994, I attended a panel at Armadillocon that discussed the failure of most sf movies to match the quality of its print counterpart. As an example, somebody made a derisive comment about Stargate (which I had just seen and hated) and a couple of members of the panel said, "Oh, you know, there was a lot to recommend that." I sat in the audience with my jaw dropped. Impossible, I thought. The panelists are bemoaning the state of sf cinema, which has been dreadful for most of its history, and yet they're making excuses for that particular piece of tripe? Really? How on earth do you improve sf movies if you continue to make excuses for the crap?

How does this happen? And what can be done about it?

Note that I do give warning about the impending film snobbery.

And I've got three recent reviews out. The first is of Gibson's newest novel Zero History, and I pride myself on not going too fanboy.

Looked at solely from that standpoint, Zero History might indeed seem absurd. But Gibson is after much more than a few playful jabs at the standard thriller plot, despite the effectiveness of those plot elements. In one sequence, Hollis and Milgrim wind up at a French fashion fair, where Milgrim tries to lose a paramilitary type who is tailing them. A ruse that involves dropping his cell phone into an expensive stroller pushed by the wife of a Russian mobster leads, in a roundabout way, to a kidnapping scheme. No, what Gibson is after is an exploration of not only fashion but lifestyle. For while the characters in Zero History operate in a civilian world, that world has co-opted the methods created by the military, thus making the separation between the two meaningless, an ironic Interzone where Federal agents receive intelligence dispatches via Twitter and penguin-shaped surveillance drones float above the streets of Paris.

I didn't say this in my review, but I was also glad to read a thriller in which the characters are those who actually act like they've read a thriller or two. Indeed, Hollis Henry is making her way through Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male early in the novel.

And of course there are movies. I review the new installment of the Harry Potter franchise, though my feelings are at best mixed.

Their search takes them through various forests and charmed cities, and at this point the movie drags. A shame, because this is the point where the movie should hold most of its emotional weight. The three have just lost their mentors through death or alienation, they have pushed away their families to protect them, and so have nowhere to go and nobody to show them what to do next: an apt metaphor for wandering through the interzone between childhood and adulthood. But the aimlessness isn't very interesting. Though I admire what writer Steven Kloves and director David Yates were trying to accomplish (and they certainly try), they dramatize it poorly. It doesn't help that Radcliffe, Grint and Watson wear the same dour expressions throughout, as if they've studied under the Derek Zoolander Center for Children Who Can't Read Good and Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too.

And we have a review of Gareth Edwards's first feature Monsters, which I found to be very good indeed. If any one recent science fiction movie deserved a large audience and wide exposure, this would be it.

Two scenes early in the sublime Monsters show that writer-director Gareth Edwards is, with his first feature, not only a master cinematic craftsman but one also schooled in showing his audience his world rather than explaining it. As photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able) await transport to a ferry that will take them away from the Central American Infected Zone (where, six years before, a satellite carrying alien microbes crashed, causing new life forms to appear) and back to America, they stay overnight in the home of a Hispanic family. As they talk to the mother and her children, a television plays in the background, featuring an animated children's program that presumably explains the giant squidlike aliens. Another occurs when Kaulder and Wynden pass a mural depicting the aliens fighting jets and tanks. Both sequences are over very quickly, but they tell the audience nearly everything about the world Edwards has created.


The State of Things

Much to cover. So, here goes.

For starters, Installment Five of my column "Watching the Future" has been posted by the good people at SF Site. This time I enlist the help of fellow skiffy writer Paul O. Miles in discussing the cultural impact of Kubrick's science fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'm indebted to Paul for keeping me from getting too long-winded.

Paul Miles: Generally in SF movies, the audience is offered a text to follow that allows you to completely ignore the subtext if you want. You can feel free to watch the 50s Invasion of the Body Snatchers as just a good gripping thriller instead of a McCarthy-era allegory or the apes in Planet of the Apes can just be apes rather at least partly a metaphor of hippies struggling against the Man, right? As you note, Kubrick doesn't let you play that game in 2001. The first ominous sign for our literal minded viewer that the roller coaster is at its apex would be the title card he throws up at the end of the Discovery sequence: Jupiter and the Infinite. No way to avoid the post-movie bull session in the lobby...

Derek Johnson: Going slightly off-topic, I imagine that the intertextual nature of science fiction, in print and film, exists to allow an audience some frame of reference, or some way to get their minds around what, depending on the audience, must look like very bizarre ideas. So formatting a movie about the nature of humanity and its potential transcendence in the guise of a thriller might allow greater audience accessibility, but it also might dilute the ideas that the filmmaker wants to address. Which I guess is why you see so few movies like 2001 or so few science fiction writers like, say, Stanislaw Lem; for most audiences, ideas themselves just aren't that thrilling.

A fascinating article, if I say so myself.

As the summer winds down, I find that the only two movies that have stuck in my mind are Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (which the Goddess and I are taking in later today) and Christopher Nolan's Inception. There's already a lot of commentary about Inception, but I did find one on the great blog Mind Hacks, which they point state have more to do with the theories of Carl Jung than modern neuroscience. Spoilers pepper their article, but it's worth your time.

When you have a hammer, everything can look like a nail and people have been banging the shit out of Inception. The sci-fi movie of the year has attracted numerous ‘neuroscience of Inception’ reviews despite the fact that the film has little to say about the brain and is clearly more inspired by the psychological theories of Carl Jung than by neurobiology.

It’s easy to why the movie has attracted neuroscience fans, including a brain-based review in this week’s Nature. It’s a science fiction film, the dream entry device presumably alters the brain, and director Christopher Nolan’s previous film Memento was carefully drawn from a detailed reading of the science of brain injury and memory loss.

Lastly, you should read this excerpt of the new book The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in the Wall Street Journal, in which they say the spontaneous creation of universe is proof of the nonexistence of God.

According to Viking mythology, eclipses occur when two wolves, Skoll and Hati, catch the sun or moon. At the onset of an eclipse people would make lots of noise, hoping to scare the wolves away. After some time, people must have noticed that the eclipses ended regardless of whether they ran around banging on pots.

Ignorance of nature's ways led people in ancient times to postulate many myths in an effort to make sense of their world. But eventually, people turned to philosophy, that is, to the use of reason—with a good dose of intuition—to decipher their universe. Today we use reason, mathematics and experimental test—in other words, modern science.

And how is your Labor Day weekend?

What I'll Be Doing During Armadillocon 32

For those who actually want to hear my pontifications, My schedule for Armadillocon 32 is as follows.

Su1000SA Critics and Criticism: Should We Be Listening?
Sun 10:00 AM-11:00 AM San Antonio
T. Wagner, R. Klaw, D. Johnson, S. Cupp, L. Person*, N. Kress
How seriously should you take critics and criticism? Should it be ignored or taken into account?

Su1300SB Five Films on an Island
Sun 1:00 PM-2:00 PM Sabine
Ma. Finn*, R. Klaw, H. Waldrop, M. Williams, D. Johnson, J. Lansdale
Your ship got lost on some forsaken island due to the idiot first mate. Fortunately you have coconut electric power and a coconut projector. Unfortunately, you only have five films. Which five do you want them to be?

Su1400SA Stump the Panel
Sun 2:00 PM-3:00 PM San Antonio
G. Faust, N. Southard*, D. Johnson, J. Rountree, R. Rose

That is all.

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