Last Week Before LAST FIRST SNOW, so here’s a trailer

July 8th, 2015 § 2 comments § permalink

Friends and neighbors, I have a book out next Tuesday.  Less than a week from today!  If you can’t wait, as is my custom, I offer you: the LAST FIRST SNOW book trailer, powered by the cinema of your imagination, in its full surround-sound screenplay format glory.

LFS Trailer

Last week, a not-so-mysterious package from Tor landed on my doorstep.  I believe it contains copies of Last First Snow.  I have not opened it yet, for the package itself filled me with deep supernatural dread.

That might be because I’ve been catching up on Nightvale.

But that’s another blog post.  I’m out and about at the moment, but I will update with pictures from that box, and whatever I find therein, later this afternoon.

Other news: Fran Wilde, whose book Updraft should really be on your radars, interviewed me about Last First Snow at SF Signal!  Check it out!

I will be at Readercon this weekend!  If you are there, come say hello!

And on Tuesday July 14, I’ll be launching LAST FIRST SNOW at the Harvard Square Bookstore, as part of an event which will also feature Elizabeth Bear, Brian Staveley, and James Cambias!  You want to come buy books for yourself and all your friends!  Yessssss, you dooooooo.  Staaaaaare into my eyeeeeees.


After that: ROAD TRIP WORLD TOUR FOR VALUES OF WORLD EQUAL TO NEW ENGLAND.  I posted about this earlier, but I’ll update my Events page with the proper schedule later this afternoon.

After that, though, I’ll back in New York on the 28th of July to deliver a talk on Hamlet as part of the Word for Word in Bryant Park program!  Hamlet is, well, Hamlet, so come watch me embarrass myself trying to say true things about it.

And, after that, I’ll be swinging west to Gen Con for the Gen Con Writer’s Symposium!  Here’s my Gen Con schedule.  I’m given to understand that events at the Writer’s Symposium run on a ticketing system, so if any of these seems especially awesome to you, and you’re bound to Gen Con, register ASAP!

Thursday Jul 30

9:00 am — The Business of Writing 101

7:00 pm — Craft: Novel Outlines and Synopsis

Friday, Jul 31

11:00 am — Craft: Rewrites and Second Drafts

2:00 am — Craft: Interactive Fiction

Saturday, Aug 1

1:oo pm — Gaming the Novel: How Tabletop Gaming Informs Worldbuilding

3:00 pm — Craft: Magic in the Modern World

Sunday, Aug 2

11:00 am — Read & Critique

Have a good week!  Happy waiting!


NPR Reviews the Craft Sequence! And I Have a Readercon Schedule!

July 1st, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

I, um, wow—so, NPR reviewed the Craft Sequence.

I love seeing the developing mosaic of Gladstone’s world, the hard questions it asks at every turn, the uncertainty of its answers. These are books I long to talk about with people, so faceted and fierce are they, so dangerously aslant our own day-to-day grinds and so full of grace. Sharp, original, passionate — this series is everything I want urban fantasy to be.

I must have a gif around here somewhere for this.  Maybe…


I mean, that’s sort of right, but it fails to capture the sort of…


But that’s a bit too, I don’t know, competent and controlled for what I’m feeling now.  Though I suppose there’s always the traditional:



Also: time to post some con schedules!  I’ll be at Readercon in just over a week (!!) and here’s what I’ll be doing!

Thursday July 10

9:00 PM    G    If Magic Has Always Been Real. Karen Burnham, Lila Garrott (leader), Max Gladstone, Romie Stott, Walt Williams. Regarding the challenges of “the world we know, but with magic!”, Monique Poirier wrote, “If magic has always been real, why did colonialism and genocide roll the way it did?… It couldn’t possibly be the world we know without all the painful, fucked up history. And what good is magic if it can’t have altered that?” Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books address this by keeping many elements of history familiar but dramatically changing others. In Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries, paranormal entities have always been there, but they hid from ordinary humans for safety and therefore lacked the ability to influence the course of history. How do other authors of historical fantasy and urban fantasy balance the inherently world-changing nature of magic with the desire to layer it on top of the world we have?

Friday July 11

11:00 AM    ENL    When Toxic Masculinity Is the Villain. Erik Amundsen, Max Gladstone, Josh Jasper (leader), Daniel José Older. In the “New Visions of Masculinity” panel at Readercon 25, we discussed the characters in Supernatural dying repeatedly because of toxic masculinity. Fighting demons is clearly easier than fighting the cultural narrative of men as arrogant, emotionally repressed aggressors who refuse to accept advice or reconsider poor decisions. What would it look like if a male character became aware of that narrative and decided to take a stand against it? Instead of toxic masculinity traits being used to generate repetitive conflict, how can authors build the tension between what the culture wants a man to be and who he wants himself to be?
12:00 PM    F    Writing in the Anthropocene: SF and the Challenge of Climate Change. Gwendolyn Clare, Michael J. Daley, Michael J. Deluca (leader), Max Gladstone, Vandana Singh. Science fiction and fantasy have often dealt with fictional apocalyptic scenarios, but what about the real-world scenario unfolding right now? Climate change, or climate disruption, is the most challenging problem faced by humankind, and some have called it a problem of the imagination, as much as economics and environment. In the wake of the latest scientific reports on what is happening and what might be in store for us, we’ll examine how imaginative fiction conveys the reality, the immediacy, and the alternative scenarios of the climate problem.
2:00 PM    CL    Kaffeeklatsch. Max Gladstone, Charles Oberndorf.
4:00 PM    G    Dhalgren at 40. Jim Freund, Max Gladstone, Elizabeth Hand (leader), Shira Lipkin, John Stevens. Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren was first published in 1975. It is now widely considered a classic, yet there is also the perception that it is a “difficult” book. How much has it influenced other authors and works? Does its dream-city serve as a predecessor for more recent fantastical places such as Ambergris or New Crobuzon? How have its experiments with the form of the narrative inspired more recent works? And how might a reader approach it for the first time from the vantage point of 2015?
5:00 PM    F    Subverting, Parodying, and Critiquing Cultures from Within and Without. Phenderson Clark, Max Gladstone, Mikki Kendall (leader), Malinda Lo, Walt Williams. On a 2014 Wiscon panel on cross-cultural writing, Daniel José Older noted that representing the rituals of another culture with factual accuracy isn’t sufficient; writers also need to understand what those rituals mean to that culture. In response, Nalo Hopkinson tweeted, “And if u have that knowledge, then is it ok 2 subvert the tradition? Beginning 2 think that may be the core question… not so much who gets 2 appropriate a traditional cultural artifact as who gets to subvert it?” Older responded, “We rarely even get to talk about subversion in this context but it’s a huge part of the story.” This panel will move beyond basic questions about cultural appropriation to discuss the power dynamics and moral nuances of cultural subversion, parody, and critique by insiders and outsiders.
8:00 PM    F    Revealing the Past, Inspiring the Future. Amal El-Mohtar (leader), Max Gladstone, Alena McNamara, Sarah Pinsker, Julia Rios. When writing Hild, Nicola Griffith was aiming for historical accuracy where possible, including in her depictions of women, queer characters, people of color, and slavery in seventh-century Britain. She writes, “Readers who commit to Hild might see the early middle ages differently now: they see what might have been possible, instead of the old master story about the place of women and the non-existence of POC and QUILTBAG people 1400 years ago. And if it was possible then, what might be possible today and in the future?” What other books and stories expand our notion of the possible by revealing the truth of history? How can creators of future settings learn from the suppressed or hidden past?

Saturday July 12

12:00 PM    CO    The Animate Universe. Judith Berman, Max Gladstone, Mikki Kendall (leader), James Morrow. In Western post-Enlightenment thought, the universe is seen as inanimate, acted upon by other forces. In some cultures, however, the universe is an actor with agency. What is the role of the universe in our stories, and in the worlds we create to house them? How does an animate universe inform or subvert the author’s and reader’s understanding of meddling gods, dead gods, prophesies, fate, Chosen Ones, and quests?2:00 PM    ENV    Reading: Max Gladstone. Max Gladstone. Max Gladstone reads The beginning of Last First Snow, my next novel—due out on July 14. Or maybe the first chapter of the book after that, depending on what people are in the mood for.

Sunday July 13

11:00 AM    E    Autographs. Max Gladstone, John Langan.
1:00 PM    G    Transformative Works and the Law and You. Max Gladstone, Toni Kelner, Adam Lipkin, Sarah Smith. Let’s discuss the state of transformative works today. Copyright law and case law in this area is changing rapidly, as is the way big publishing treats transformative works. Remix culture is the cutting edge of 21st-century creativity, and we are all postmodernists. Is the law finally catching up with that, or lagging far behind? Will the fate of copyright and transformative works ultimately be decided by the whims of corporations and powerful literary estates?
So: come see!

Glengarry Glenn Editor

June 24th, 2015 § 1 comment § permalink

If you’re a cinema person, or if you’ve ever worked in or near a sales office, you’ve seen the Glengarry Glenn Ross speech. You know the one I mean. This one. (Warning: NSFW / language)

I once worked with a sales team that could recite this speech from memory. One guy told me, voice swollen with pride, that his four-year-old walked into the kitchen while he was pouring coffee one morning, glared at him, and said: “Daddy, coffee is for closers!”

Mamet wrote this speech for the film adaption of GGR—but it proved so popular he grafted it back onto the stage show, even though it’s a pain to stage, since you have to cast a whole actor for one scene. Common reactions on first exposure to the scene include rage, horror, frustration, scorn, all the emotions we read from Baldwin’s audience of broken-down real estate salesmen. But the speech is also, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize this, selling something; Baldwin’s character wants to sell these salesmen on being a salesman of a particular sort. He grabs attention with rhetoric, bluster, and status. (“This watch cost more than your car.”) He promises them, implicitly, that good salesmen get rich, that good salesmen get respect, that good salesmen get that greatest (macho) privilege, the right to shout at people and know they have to listen. It’s effective as it is gross. By the end of that scene, every man in that room wants to murder Baldwin—but since that’s not legal, they’ll settle for beating him at his own game. He’s sold them through their anger. They want to win, or at least to defend themselves. Attention. Interest. Decision. Action.

Last night, as the Attorney and I chatted about the differences between legal writing and fiction, I found myself thinking about this scene in a new light. Writers—writers of fiction especially—always have to be closing.

People are busy, and they live in a world filled with art. (I mean, in its loosest sense: any intentional work that captures the mind. Games obviously qualify, as do sports, either the kind you watch or the kind you play. So does the social web—Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. etc. etc., are all built to make you pay attention.) Writers come to people saying, “read this story!” And the people answer: why? I mean, really, why?

Readers do want to engage with stories—they want to be swept away, they want to be enlightened, they want to forget their lives or have their mind blown, they want to escape either in the flighty sense or the LeGuinian sense of liberation from a prison camp. But readers also want, or need, to (watch the latest episode of $Cool_TV_Show_All_Their_Friends_Watch | finish their essay | go to the gym | cook dinner | pick up the kids | answer email | plan their wedding | do $pressing_chore | play a Batman video game). Time is real estate. No one’s making any more of it. A storyteller has to convince readers that her story is worth the time it takes to hear.

And by “convince,” I mean “sell.”

This is where AIDA comes in—the Attention, Interest, Decision, Action cycle, it seems to me, holds for reader and character alike. We’re used to thinking about character motivation on a beat-by-beat level. Attention: how did the character get to this scene? Interest: why does the character care about these events? Decision: what decision does she make? Action: how does she carry out that decision? So far, so good—we’re solidly in Robert McKee territory.

But the reader goes through a similar cycle. So, when editing or breaking story, seems to me we can ask ourselves a similar list of questions about the reader. Attention: why would a reader pay attention to this? (Possible answers: because the book’s funny; because it scared the crap out of her; because it’s wise; because she wants to puzzle out some tangled prose; because the book offers an escape; because she’s angry; because she’s bemused.) Interest: why would a reader continue? (Will the villain get a comeuppance? Will Our Heroine’s scheme collapse around her? Does the reader see an echo of her own struggle? Are you fulfilling wishes, realizing nightmares, offering a laugh or a shoulder to cry on? Is your writing just that good on a line by line level?) Decision: will the reader keep going? (Yes; no; yes, but the next time you fuck up, she’s gone; yes, ecstatically; yes, but she’ll skim through each scene of endless clunky unrealistic politicical argument; yes, but only so she can rant about the book afterward) And action: the page turn. The closing book. The book, hurled with great force over Niagra Falls. The book, in a blender.

This would be a dangerous way for, e.g., me to think during composition, since my first drafts involve a lot of telling the story to myself, complete with false starts and stops, tics, and coffee breaks. First drafts are that night before a speech, pacing in my hotel room, stammering through the roughest shape of what I mean to say. Composition is about selling myself on the story. (If I worked more to Hollywood spec, I’d do this at the breaking / pitch stage.)

But once composition’s done, and I’m editing a draft—well. Time to sell the reader. Time to be the best kind of scum: fearless and inventive. Time to go through the manuscript and ask, at every turn: am I always closing? What does this line do for me? This word? This exchange?

The great thing about these AIDA questions, to my mind, is that there are many different good answers, especially to the first two. Often story structure advice boils down to “DO THIS OR ELSE YOUR BOOK WILL CATCH ON FIRE AND YOUR READERS DESERT YOU,” with implied scorn for hard writing, quiet scenes, or anything “literary.” (For a good example, see the Screenplay Seminar scene in Adaptation.) But different things interest different readers—hell, different things interest the same reader. I love Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and I love Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, and I love Ryu Murakami’s Coin Locker Babies, but these are, to put it mildly, different books, deploying a broad range of techniques to hold the reader’s mind. Is the reader interested in your swordfight? In your prose? In your Kantian ruminations? In all of the above? What reason have you given her, in this beat, to turn the page?

Maybe this helps you. Maybe it doesn’t. Either way, I’m interested. I’ll use this angle as I revise the first draft I finished yesterday; you’ll see how it goes.


This July: the Tor Books Big Summer Road Trip!

June 3rd, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

Hello, friends!  Excited for Last First Snow?  I know I am!  And so’s the LA Times, which is pretty cool.  The big news today is that I’m gearing up for a tour—and not just any tour, but Tor Books’ Big Summer Road Trip!

This July, Elizabeth Bear, Brian StaveleyJames Cambias, and I will gang together on a tour of joint signings and events throughout the American Northeast, something like the Muppet Movie meets Fury Road only with more books and d20s.  (The internet has not yet supplied a recut of Fury Road to Movin’ Right Along.  BEHOLD MY DISAPPOINTMENT.)  We’ll be traveling for two weeks between ReaderCon and GenCon.  We have epic fantasy! Steampunk! Near future space piracy technothrillers! Necrothrillers!  What more could you want?

Nothing, I say.  Nothing at all.  Details below!

(Oh, and if you can’t wait, we have a few giveaways of Last First Snow on deck—Tor’s running one, and the Goodreads drawing is still open!)

4Untitled Untitled2 Untitled3


Tuesday, July 14, 2015 @ 7:00pm

Harvard Book Store – Cambridge, MA

Thursday, July 16, 2015 @ 7:00pm

Pandemonium – Cambridge, MA
Author Pathfinder Game sponsored by Paizo!

Friday, July 17, 2015 @ 6: 00pm

Odyssey Bookshop – South Hadley, MA

Saturday July 18, 2015 @ 1:00pm – 3:00pm

Friends of the Simsbury Library – Simsbury, CT

Sunday, July 19, 2015 @ 1:00pm

Bank Square Books – Mystic, CT

Monday, July 20, 2015 @ 7:00pm

Ferguson Library – Stamford, CT

Wednesday, July 22, 2015 @ 7:00pm

Towne Book Center – Collegeville, PA

Moderated by Chris Urie from Geekadelphia

Friday, July 24, 2015 @ 6:00pm

Northshire Books – Saratoga Springs, NY

Saturday, July 25, 2015 @ 6:00pm

Everyone’s Books – Brattleboro, VT

Sunday, July 26, 2015 @ 2:00pm

Phoenix Books – Burlington, VT
Hosted by Geek Mountain State

I hope to see you there!

Apres Disney

May 20th, 2015 § 11 comments § permalink

I saw a mouse teleport last week.

The capstone show of a day at Disneyworld’s Hollywood Studios is a multimedia dance/sfx extravaganza called Fantasmic!, note exclamation mark, presented as a journey into the imagination of Mickey Mouse, sort of like the movie Cell with Jennifer Lopez only featuring fewer segmented cows.  They set a lake on fire!  The steamboat from Steamboat Willy features prominently!  They have lasers!  It’s really cool.

The show takes place on a mountain inside Mickey’s imagination (Bald Mountain, possibly? The Magic Mountain?), and during its denoument Mickey stands at the mountain’s peak in full Sorcerer’s Apprentice fashion, calling gouts of water from the lake to fight [bad guys].  Victorious, he claps his hands—and teleports to the mountain’s foot, having undergone a full costume change in the process!

Now, were Mickey Mouse a human stage magician, we’d call this a trick, and try to puzzle out how it was done.  What interests me about this moment, though, is that the “trick” is utterly transparent: place one cast member at the top of the mountain in the Mickey suit, and another at the bottom of the mountain in another Mickey suit, and vanish the first as you produce the second, with a burst of fireworks to hide the momentary transition.

But Mickey occupies a weird ontological position, doesn’t he?  He doesn’t exist as a physical entity except when embodied by a cast member in contact with an audience—the cast member isn’t Mickey when she’s backstage, for example.  (Many characters are portrayed by female actors, apparently.)  So, if Mickey exists only when the castmember’s seen by the audience, the trick I described in the last paragraph is not a trick at all!  Mickey literally ceases to exist in one place, and begins existing in another.

The mouse actually teleports.

It’s not just the effect of “a different person in the same costume,” either, since the costume is only part of the character.  Obviously in a stage show like Fantasmic! the actor’s limited by choreography and blocking—but Disney characters like Mickey also move about the park and interact with people.  Castmembers who portray characters obey strict guidelines, limits, and set behaviors in their contact with guests; a human cast member is running a sort of behavioral code that lets the Mouse inhabit them—or lets them inhabit the Mouse.  A guest watching Fantasmic! sees no difference between the Mickey in that show and the Mickey who can be encountered wandering around the park.  Disney is also very careful to keep Mickey in one place at a time, at least within individual parks—the Mouse may be in Animal Kingdom and the Magic Kingdom at the same time, but won’t be in two places within the Magic Kingdom at the same time.  We’re sold the idea that these are entities, which makes the teleporting even more remarkable.

There’s room here for a physics of brand characters, I think; what limits do, and do not, apply to an entity that’s basically a performance?  Fodder for future work.

Sorry for leaving you all without a post last week, by the way—I was in such a rush to prepare for our excursion that I forgot even to post a placeholder.  Of course, returning from Disney (the way we roll, at any rate) feels something like returning from a close encounter of the eighteen-wheeler kind, so I’m not particularly cogent at the moment either.  A few more ideological thumbnails from the trip:

  • While I was joking about my vacation to Area X on Twitter, I think Disney’s a lot more relevant to discussion of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, and especially Annihilation, than one would think at first glance.  In each case we’re discussing a patch of Florida carved off from the rest of the world and transformed by (MILD AND NOT REALLY ACCURATE SPOILERS BASED ON MY MISREADING OF THE TEXT)what amounts to an artist’s vision of a better, or at least substantially altered world, with a skewed relationship to time compared to the wider universe and an obsession with blurring the lines between the human and animal kingdoms(/MANRASBOMMOTT).  Most magical place on earth!
  • Theme Park vacations are exercises in choice constriction; this constriction is the primary way in which they can be said to be relaxing.  (They’re certainly not physically relaxing, though walking I’d estimate  around 14 miles a day for five days and waking at 6:15 most mornings did ease my perpetual homo computerensis shoulder tension.)  In ordinary life, we face theoretically limitless possibility and practically implacable routine.  At any moment we could go learn Swedish, jump out an airplane, overturn our desks and go to Washington to fistbump the President, climb the Matterhorn, but we’ll probably do whatever it is we normally do on, say, Wednesday afternoon.  At a theme park, there is no ordinary—but your choice space is limited to the immediately accessible rides, restaurants, and attractions.  Like video games, then, theme parks reward theming and the construction of interesting choices within those limits.
  • The American pavilion at Epcot has a cool a capella group!
  • Roller coasters tell stories—and the best roller coasters, like the best stories, work on the subversion and exploitation of reader expectation.  If you’ve ever been on Expedition Everest at the Animal Kingdom you’ll know what I’m talking about; if you haven’t, I’m not sure I want to spoil the ride.
  • Disney’s playing an ethical game, moral fiction in the John Gardner sense—positive values are imagination, humor, love, generosity, and filial piety (with epicycles to support bucking the will of restrictive but well-intentioned parents, e.g. “bet ya on land they understand / bet they don’t reprimand their daughters“).  There doesn’t seem to be much room in the Disney ethical system for erotic attraction, like for people being into other people without that attraction being excused by terms like “true love,” which is fine except it does make me worry a little about Star Wars, which (in the OT) for all Lucas’s “no jiggling in the Empire” silliness is clearly aware about physical attraction as an axis of relationship between its characters.  While Han and Leia are clearly in love by the end of ESB, I at least wouldn’t describe their relationship as true love in the old school Disney sense.  Though perhaps Disney’s moving away from that—at least, Frozen is a sign for hope in that direction.
  • In general wandering around the first day of Star Wars weekend I had a profound sense of the common cause, but also of the cultural conflict, between Star Wars and Disney.  They’re fellow travelers, for sure, but they differ on key points.  I wonder if Disney will catch Star Wars, if Star Wars will come down with a case of Disney, or they’ll retain their mutual distinctiveness?  I can see any number of ways this could play out.  I’m not sure what’s most likely.


Vacuums of Ultron, and Commodity Fetishism too!

May 6th, 2015 § 7 comments § permalink

Avengers: Age of Ultron!  It is a moving picture thing that happened in theaters this weekend in the States!

I wish I had time for a full breakdown of the film; I don’t, really.  Oh, and I’m flipping on the Spoiler Warning for this post, beyond this paragraph, so I can do some Actual Analysis without having to hide behind the usual movie review rhetorical fancy footwork (“when one pivotal event happens, certain main characters were sad!”).  That said, you may well have seen the film already, and have probably read a bunch of other breakdowns of it on your various lunchbreaks, so perhaps my top-level thoughts will be of interest.  Spoiler free version: AoU was a fun couple of hours of watching superfolks, some of whom were robots, punch other robots until they (the robots who were at least nominally not superfolks) could not robot any more.  Then, surprise Castle in the Sky reference!  Overall, though, AoU left me a little cold.  Some of that cold-leaving was probably the fault of a not-great 3-D conversion that felt dim and flickery to this viewer.  Some, though…

Spoilers on.

For my money, The Avengers, the first film, worked despite its enormous cast by hanging a dog-simple plot (BAD GUY SPEAR ALIENS AAAAAAAH) on a construction grade steel frame of character.  The characters don’t arc per se—there’s not enough room for people to do much Growing or Changing—but each player has a white hot emotional core running through the entire film.  Tony has a Problem with Authority.  Cap is a Man out of Time.  Bruce has Bruce Problems.  Thor has My Brother, God What Am I Supposed to Do with my Goddamn Brother Problems.  Natasha has La Femme Nikita Problems.  Hawkeye is a Plot Device.  Basically everyone has PTSD of some sort, except for Thor, who’s too awesome for PTSD.  All these people have developed strengths in conversation with and response to their problems.  The Avengers told the story of all this motley crew directing their weird strengths toward a common challenge in spite of their various issues.

(Side point: this storytelling technique interests me because it flies in the face of the received vision of “character growth” storytelling, where, you know, Broseph or Damemageddon [is bad at thing] in Act I, then [develops as character] and [succeeds at thing] by the end of Act V.  Many myths don’t work this way at all—mythic characters tend to be revealed as the right man, woman, etc. for the job over the course of their adventure.  The Hero Twins in the Popul Voh don’t need an Act I to establish them as nitwits so they can be awesome later; they’re awesome from appearance one.  Arthur isn’t some schmuck who pulls his act together to be king.  He’s king all along!  The sword just, you know, points it out to everyone else.   Odysseus doesn’t go through an arc where he learns that he really needs to be the man of twists and turns—he *is*.  Many and myriad are the movies that show us a character who’s not in her proper place, or whose inner qualities aren’t appreciated by society until she uses them to save that society.  This is Jackie Chan in Project A.  This is the Joan of Arc story.  This is Aerin in The Hero and the Crown.  This is Chris Pratt in basically everything, but specifically Guardians of the Galaxy and The LEGO Movie.  This is most of the Disney Princesses.  This is everyone in Oceans 11.)

(Continuing side point: it’s actually really hard for me to think of a movie that’s not a comedy that doesn’t handle heroism this way.  I’m not saying that characters don’t grow, or shouldn’t—just that there’s this other thing happening too in great myth, and if you spend all your time trying to make characters grow, you can fail into characters who seem flat and uninteresting at the beginning of your story, which is all sorts of squiggly strangley reader death.)

Age of Ultron, by contrast… doesn’t do that thing, at least not nearly so well, in my opinion.  Natasha is Interested in Bruce Banner, Bruce Banner is Interested back—that’s the best of it.  Captain America is… American?  Captain-y?  Hawkeye is… hm.  Thor is, once again, fine—but in being fine he doesn’t quite stand out so much in this slightly more well-adjusted team.  Tony wants “a suit of armor to protect the world,” which would be compelling if this wasn’t the same psychological baggage he wrestled with to much better effect in Iron Man 3.  We buy that these people all work together quite well!  That’s great!  But where are the cracks?

The conflict in this team should come from fundamental differences of approach, but unfortunately, it ends up coming from Scarlet Witch’s mind-control.

Tony gets mind-controlled into creating Ultron—there’s some dialogue handwaving in Act IV to the effect that no, Tony wasn’t actually mind controlled, he would have built Ultron anyway because he was afraid, but he didn’t seem afraid before we saw Scarlet Witch wave her hands, give Tony a Pieta vision in which he kneels mournfully and manfully over Steve (audience: “NOW KEEESS!”), followed by Tony going all “yep, evil robots, that’s what we need, army of ’em.”  I’d be really surprised if the audience walked away thinking Tony would have built Ultron without the Scarlet Witch’s intervention.

So, Tony didn’t make a bad decision really.  He’s not actually responsible for destroying the world, or close enough.  He doesn’t need absolution for anything.  But of course that Act IV exculpatory dialogue also tries to establish that Scarlet Witch didn’t know screwing with Tony’s mind would cause Tony to create Ultron.  She just Witched at his head for… reasons?  So Ultron isn’t her fault either.  He’s no one’s fault!  He’s just the weather!

And now we have Superheroes vs. the Weather, my least favorite superhero plot.  Will Superman stop the tidal wave?  Thrilling!  Tune in next week!

Mind control rears its ugly head again in Act III, where Natasha, Thor, and Cap all face visions of their darkest fears.  Hooray!  Except, see, those visions?  They’re artificial.  Scarlet Witch causes them to help Her Team win a fight.  When that happens, I expect to see My Heroes fight off the manipulation of their minds—that’s the typical old school Marvel “get out of my head” thing, in which My Heroes demonstrate their inner wisdom and self-therapy their way out of mind control—but they never do.

Instead, Act Four seems to treat mind control hallucinations like just another form of character development.  Natasha, Thor, and Cap reel from traumatic pasts that did not seem to be bother them in this movie before they got Witched!  These emotional beats lack any cause beyond “magic.”  Nor do any of Our Heroes, or their script, seem to understand that they’re emotionally shaken because they were mentally violated, rather than due to past traumas they all seem to have made their peace with to various degrees.  Natasha never says, “Well, yes, in fact I did have a deeply screwed up childhood, I’m in therapy, I take meds sometimes to sleep, but my usual coping mechanisms JUST AREN’T WORKING RIGHT NOW BECAUSE SOMEONE FUCKED WITH MY HEAD,” which would then give Bruce, you know, for example, an opening to go “Look, um, I’ve got some experience with coping mechanisms not working, maybe we can work through this together?”  That would be cause-and-effect storytelling!  Natasha’s “I’m a monster” moment feels so weird IMO because we know, but the script never admits, that her feelings of monstrosity are baseless so far as this movie is concerned—the same reason Tony’s anxiety in this film seems so shallow, in spite of working so well in Iron Man 3.

And Bruce Banner.  God.  Talk about Mind Control problems.  So, Bruce seems to have a decent handle on the Hulk for the first two acts of this film.  He drinks, he flirts, he jokes, he’s a normal geeky supergenius.  Even when the Hulk Hulks out in Act I, he doesn’t seem particularly bestial.  He only becomes a threat when he gets, again, Witched, in Act III, and rampages through Jo-Berg, miraculously never killing anyone so far as we see on-screen, even though there’s no way that rampage is actually Body Count Zero.  At which point Bruce spends the last chunk of the film in full on Incredible Hulk TV Show mode: I can’t be around anyone, I’m a threat to the world, etc.  Except he wasn’t a threat, not until he was, say it with me now, mind controlled.  Oy.

(Also sidebar, it felt weird watching a skyscraper collapse in Jo-berg on an IMAX in New York City as part of a Giant Action Setpiece, knowing the whole time that the previous Avengers film, which was set in NYC, didn’t dare do anything like collapse a skyscraper, especially not with that particularly, um, realistic and characteristic dust bloom special effect.  This may be my inner conspiracy theorist coming out.  I can get sensitive about weird stuff sometimes.)

So, basically every conflict in this film can be traced, directly or indirectly, to a vaguely-defined mind control power, yet the mind controller is never held responsible for anything.  No one goes up to Wanda Maximoff, Scarlet Witch extraordinaire, to say, “Hmmmm, maybe this thing you do with the screwing around with people’s minds to make them annihilate cities, maybe this is not so great?  Maybe you have something to atone for here?  Maybe you should feel a little bad about this whole Ultron situation?  Perhaps you should face the consequences of your actions in a direct way, not via karmic scapegoat sacrifice?  Doesn’t it feel a little weird for you to join the Avengers at this juncture, given everything you’re responsible for, without even a second’s soul-searching?”  As a result, most of the moral reasoning and character conflict in the film felt, to me, like it took place in a vacuum.  Of course Tony makes the same decision in Act IV with the Vision that he made in Act I with proto-Ultron; nothing has happened to him as a character in the meantime.

Having said all that, I enjoyed a lot of this movie.  The actors clearly live in their characters.  The party scene at Tony’s at the beginning of Act II, that’s fantastic cinema.  The Avengers hanging out, joshing each other, trying to lift Thor’s hammer—brilliant.  The movie reaches for a beautiful argument about monstrosity, though it doesn’t quite land in my opinion in part due to the film’s reluctance to engage with Mind Control Problems.  I’d vote Paul Bettany for President.  James Spader was fantastic; I couldn’t place his voice at first until a friend pointed out that he was the male lead in Secretary, which made the whole movie more interesting in retrospect!  (Wish they could have sprung for a Maggie Gyllenhall cameo.)  The script’s intuition that the Avengers movies (as opposed to the other MCU entries) should focus their character development on Avengers-specific characters (The Hulk, Natasha, and Hawkeye) is spot-on IMO, and I love the idea, not-quite-sold either in my opinion, that Hawkeye is supposed to step up as father figure for a troubled team.  (The Hawkeye stuff never quite landed for me because it was so disconnected from the rest of the moral universe of the film—a storyteller trying to hide the story, a dangerous move if you’re not Gene Wolfe and even then.)

And the fights!  I mean, yes, faceless interchangeable robots, fine.  But I love how the formal logic of Avengers fights progresses through the films.  I wrote back when Winter Soldier hit theaters about Captain America and Commodity Fetishism in the MCU, basically about how the Marvel core characters are beings who project their individuality into totems, and become encapsulated by those totems.  Thor’s the most literal—Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall posses the power of Thor—but Cap is the Shield in a very real way.  The Hulk might seem not to fit this rubric, but actually he’s its apotheosis, Banner commodified: being as pure kinetic energy, all work with the worker submerged or flensed away.  The Avengers revolved around claiming tools and names (the Tesseract, the spear, the shield, that great scene of Thor trying to grab his hammer as he falls).  Each character owned his or her own style to such an extent I proposed an operatic adaptation, complete with voice casting.  The Phase 2 Marvel movies, by contrast, tended to show characters renegotiating their relationships with totems, trying to re-establish their identities as breathing humans outside of their superheroic tools.  (This is especially true of Captain America: Winter Soldier, with its action scenes spinning around the capture, loss, and recovery of the Shield, not to mention of SHIELD itself, and of IM3, where Tony has to reclaim his Iron Man self from the suit of armor.  Even Thor 2 contained an awful lot of Thor being deprived of his hammer—by teleporter, by literal disarmament, by his own will.)

AoU completes & expands on this process of divestiture and identity reclamation.  Characters regard and use one another’s totems without fear or jealousy—and this totem-play becomes a signal of intimacy and even love.  In one early action sequence Thor strikes Cap’s shield with his hammer because he wants to cause a shockwave—an echo of the climactic conflict between their characters in the first film, reclaimed and restated here as a weapon two friends use against a common foe.  Seconds later, Cap throws his (mighty) shield so Thor can strike it with his hammer baseball style (America’s pasttime!) to knock out Hydra goons.  Natasha touches the Hulk, and rides him—the only non-violent physical contact to which the Hulk’s ever exposed.  The scene where everyone tries to lift Thor’s hammer exemplifies this theme; Thor’s arrogance is part of the joke (“I have a simpler explanation: you’re not worthy”) but this hammer is, in some very real sense, him—he’s trusting his friends with his identity.  After the wrenching moments of shield-loss and divestiture in Winter Soldier, it’s a joy to see those same beats re-capitulated for laughs when Natasha grabs the shield off the road in Seoul.  (“Always picking up after you boys.”)  I know there are other moments; I’ll catch more on rewatch.  And, of course, the point’s made most profoundly by the Vision’s close-paren on the Thor joke from Act II, first for dramatic effect and then for laughs.

There’s a lot more to say about Age of Ultron.  Lots of folk are saying it.  I had a good time in the theater; it’s an impressive achievement in terms of its place in the larger system of Marvel movies.  The team managed to make a fantastic filler episode that’s set to clear $2 billion in box office and queues up a bunch of movies about which I’m very excited.  Go read what other smarter people are writing elsewhere.  For now, I may not be out of thoughts, but I am out of fingers, and time.

OH! And: I’m on Anton Strout’s Once and Future Podcast this week.  Check it out!

Problems with Death (in Games)

April 29th, 2015 § 13 comments § permalink

A non-exhaustive list, apropos of being knee-deep in interactive fiction code at the moment:

1. The players do not understand why they die.

2. The players do not believe they can die.

3. The players believe they lack control over their death, or the deaths of others.

4. The players believe they have too much control over their death, or the deaths of others.

5. The players lack context for death.

6. The players feel that death is necessarily negative.

7. Death interrupts narrative.

8. Death ends narrative.

9. Death is used as a punishment.

10. The players and the game master have different opinions about death.

11. The players feel death is unfair, in theory or in practice.

12. The players think the game master cheats.

13. The players think the game master cheats in ways that do not favor them.

14. The players think the game master cheats in ways that do not favor the narrative.

15. The players believe death is permanent.

16. The players believe death is transitory.

17. The players disagree among themselves about the significance of death.

18. The players believe death is the worst thing the game master can do to them.

19. The game master believes death is the worst thing she can do to the players.

Not sure about the significance of any of these, or whether they matter.  Prompts for personal reflection, is all.

Also, on a more upbeat note: I’m going to Phoenix Comic Con!  And my appearance schedule has been posted in the usual place!

Things I Have Done Recently

April 22nd, 2015 § 3 comments § permalink

It’s been a long week and it’s only Tuesday!  This thanks in part to the cool crazy serial project I’ve been writing behind the scenes, and to the new book, which burned past the 50k mark on Monday.  It’s different from anything I’ve written—I’m pushing into cool new territory, and beyond that I don’t want to say more.

Unfortunately that leaves me in an All Work and No Play situation in re: blogs, interesting ideas, and the having thereof.  I’m waiting for to post my Mega Super Crazy Othello essay, which should go live sometime this week, so watch the skies—I’ll drop a link here when the time is right.

In movie news, I saw vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows on Friday, which means I may be the last person on the planet to have done so.  If I’m not, and you haven’t seen it yet, and you have ever (a) loved a vampire movie or (b) lived with roommates / flatmates / housemates / whatevermates, give this film a shot.  It’s one of those comedies where you start wondering before the opening credits roll whether you can actually stand to laugh this much for the next eighty minutes.  Rewatches shall ensue if only so I can quote it properly.  Check it out for sure if you can find a nearby showing.

Also ran in a good friend’s D&D5 game this weekend.  Right now my personal table preference is more Fate-oriented, and I want to try out Dungeon World sometime soon, time and tides and copious spare time permitting, but damn if D&D5 doesn’t feel like my childhood—like someone took AD&D2E and made it function.  Every time I sit down, I marvel that such a trick was possible.

Aside from that, I have a Vienna Teng concert tonight (which is to say, last night, since I’m writing to the grim darkness of your far future from my shining and idyllic past, or vice versa), so I’m off to skitter about my pre-show preparations.

Have a good week, everyone!

Three Big Announcements: PW*, Paperback, Pathfinder!

April 15th, 2015 § 7 comments § permalink

Good afternoon, Starfighters, and I hope your weeks have all progressed awesomely, with ruination to your foes, glory to the cause of Justice, et cetera.  This week: announcements!

First: LAST FIRST SNOW got a starred review in Publishers Weekly!


Gladstone’s gift for vivid storytelling, his deep empathy for his characters, his sly satire of current socioeconomic issues, and the rich, diverse world of his novels have become reliable pleasures, always enthralling and somehow consistently improving with every book.

Bam.  Last First Snow drops on July 14th, Bastille Day, which amuses me for Reasons.  This book is about protest, and communities trying to change themselves.  I described some of the key themes on a while back.  You can pre-order it now wherever fine books are sold!  For example: Indiebound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.  Pre-orders are golden: they help bookstores identify interest in a forthcoming title, which leads to more orders and excitement around the book.  Do what you can for the cause!

Second: FULL FATHOM FIVE is out in paperback this week!

Paperback release is a beautiful time in a book’s lifecycle.  I say this every time my books make paperback, but—when I was a kid, I never bought hardcover.  One hardcover book cost a night’s wages at the pizza joint!  Paperbacks won my heart on price efficiency; I could wait, albeit with great difficulty, for the softcover edition.  So, teenage Max, wherever you are, you can afford this one now.  Locus and the Lambda Award jury liked the book.  You probably will too!  Same link parade:  Indiebound, Barnes & Noble, Amazon.

Third: I’m writing a PATHFINDER novel!

This is long range news—like, I won’t break ground on this book until 2016—but I thought you might like to know!  I’m really excited about this project.  I’ve been tabletop gaming since I was a kid; it’s how I learned to talk, like in a group with people, and how I formed my closest and earliest bonds with friends.  I’m itching to do something fun with the Pathfinder world’s almost but not quite medieval modes of production, murder hobos, planar travel, elves, and sideways transhumanism, with mystically reified morality axes, Vance-adjacent magic, chance-dependent physics—god, consider the sheer potential for shenanigans, and that’s just talking about the ruleset!  Then we get into dead gods, kingdoms ruled by demonic contracts, undead stuff, yes yes yes.  This gnarled conceptual space has so much storytelling potential—so many dark corners and intriguing tangles to explore, Planetary style.  I’ve played with and pondered these concepts in my own tabletop games since Time Immemorial, as veterans of the Faerun Insurance and Recovery Corporation well know, and now I get to share the fruits of those ponderings with y’all, Dear Readers.  We’ve all been playing in the same woods since we were kids, but follow me and I’ll show you what found there.  This will be a fun ride.  Don’t buckle your seatbelts.  It’s more entertaining for me that way.

*buckles his own seatbelt surreptitiously*

I’m grateful to James Sutter and the rest of the team at Paizo for loaning me their toys.  I promise when I return them all of the heads will be on the proper bodies.  Probably.  Wherever they’ve spent the meantime.

Oh, and if your reaction to this news is but Max what about your other books, first, thank you for your support, and second, have no fear, Dear Reader.  Tor already has a manuscript for Craft Sequence Book 5, which, because I so dearly love making my editor’s life easier, is numbered Four, tentative publication date 2016 sometime.  Even with my tight schedule and overlapping Seekret Projekts for the rest of the year, I don’t anticipate breaking pace on the Sequence.  More news on that front as soon as I have anything firm to report, of course.

Okay, that’s all for now!  Enjoy your days.  Vote in the Locus Awards.  Find someone cool and give them a high-five.  Peace.

Fighting Words: Thoughts on Prose Style Prompted by John Wick

April 8th, 2015 § 18 comments § permalink

A few weeks back I watched John Wick for the first time. In this movie, Keanu Reeves plays the titular Wick, a former hit man gone straight, who comes out of retirement after the local Russian mob boss’ son invades his (Wick’s) home, steals his car, and kills his puppy.

I swear all this relates to writing.  Just give me time.

So the Russian mob boss discovers his son has made a mortal enemy of the implacable, nigh-invincible Wick, who was so good at his job in his heydey that he was regarded as a supernatural force—Baba Yaga.  He tries to patch things up with Wick, but fails.  Now, the only thing our mob boss can do is order a pre-emptive strike on Wick’s house by twelve ski-mask-wearing goons, and hope it works.

The following occurs:

Just… ponder that beautiful scene for a second.  John Wick did well with general audiences, but from action fans I heard a collective scream of joy for, among the film’s other virtues, its return to legible fight scenes, and rejection of the Bourne Consensus of Shakey-Cam Combat.  The choreography in John Wick is clear and sharp, the cuts minimal and explicative rather than meant to mystify.  There is a point to the Bourne style fight—it mimics pretty well what it’s like to be in an actual grappling match with intent to kill or maim or at least defend oneself, which is to say deeply confusing and unpleasant.  This camerawork, by contrast, shows us the battlefield as John Wick sees it: composed of clean angles and short, sharp stops.  The fight scene is ballet and the camera one more dancer, intended to highlight rather than obscure the performance.  Nor does the choreography stint from displays of sheer strength and determination, highlighting this important element of the character.  While we begin (from 0:17 to 0:35) with angle, rotation, speed, and precision, we end (as the movie itself ends) with an uncomfortable forty seconds of flailing over a knife.

After the credits rolled, I stood and paced the house thinking, how on earth could I accomplish that same effect in prose?  How could I write scenes that felt like those?

Now, for most of my life my instinct has been: well, you just describe what happened!  So, first he shoots the one guy, then spins and shoots the other guy twice, then changes angle to shoot the third guy.  But that doesn’t capture the information coded in the elegance of Wick’s motion, or even the tiny details that make the first four-shot sequence stick, like blood spray or the spatter on the photograph on the back wall.  (Let alone the music’s heightening of tension and discomfort, or the cinematography’s coding of shadow as threat and moonlight as exposure and the way that plays with the bad guys’ darker wardrobes and balaclavas, the gunshot flares as revelatory instrument.)  Capturing all of that would require a denser, fuller prose approach that would conflict with the speed of the scene, unless we wanted to embrace the Proust.

It gets even worse when interactions grow more complicated than “shoot the dude / dude falls down.”  Toward the end of that three minute clip we segue into strikes and locks, and most readers don’t have the technical vocabulary to read a description of that fight and extract meaning.  Consider, say, the brief exchange of blows from 1:44 up to the flip at 1:50—guy goes for gun, Wick kicks gun away, guy goes for a hammerfist with his right which Wick blocks & redirects down, goes for a chop or a haymaker with the left which Wick strike-blocks Bruce Lee style, then it looks like Wick goes for a stomach hit to distract the guy while he transitions into the wrist lock then pirouettes for an over the shoulder throw so the guy lands on his (guy’s, not Wick’s) back.  I bet it took you longer than six seconds to read that description—and that’s having just watched the video.

If you only read my description and did not watch the video, maybe you could piece together what actually happened on a blow-for-blow level, but it would probably involve reading the above paragraph with a tolerant friend and some free time.  Certainly, if I tried to convey that choreography, not to mention the overall feel of the event, I would almost certainly bore my reader—or at least take several pages to describe a handful of seconds’ interaction.

The more I thought about this problem, the more convinced I became that John Wick’s charm is due to the fact that it sets itself challenges at which movies excel.  I’m no cinema scholar—someone who was could probably give you a better summary—but here are a few points: movies show movement, and humans are really good at parsing movement—especially at parsing the movement of other humans!  We know how bodies bend, the ways they’re supposed to move and the ways they aren’t.  Soon as we see someone’s arm broken on camera, we know what that means.  Movies can convey multiple streams of visual information at once, guiding our attention with focus and camerawork.  As the Plinkett Reviews repeat again and again, ‘you didn’t notice [this tiny cinematic detail], but yer brain did.’

Prose fiction does not excel at any of the above.  Before you break out the pitchforks and torches, note: I’m not saying prose fiction can’t have awesome fights, or action, or anything like that!  What I’m saying is, the qualities that go into making a book as exciting for a reader as John Wick was for me as an action movie buff are different.  That book would have to make use of its form, of the particular constraints and opportunities of prose fiction, the way John Wick—or any other action film—uses its own cinematic toolbox.

This should go without saying, but I’m not sure it does any more.  For one thing, constant repetition and misuse of advice like “show don’t tell” can lead writers to use the cursor like a camera lens, and only like a camera lens, which seems to me like using a Shun chef’s knife to open your mail.  For another, modern imaginations have been shaped to a great degree by film and television and video games—and have shaped them in turn, of course.  Most people likely to be writing a fight scene in 2015 have probably seen many more fights on television or in movies than they’ve ever seen or been a part of in real life, likely several orders of magnitude more.  David Foster Wallace’s essay E Unibus Pluram goes into this notion in greater detail, though his vision of a voyeuristic writership has been altered a bit by the two-way fisheye internet world, in which we all have cameras pointed at us as we sit at our computers watching video feeds from cameras other people have pointed at themselves, while the government watches us watching, etc.  People repeat what they’ve seen—so writers tend to pick up storytelling tricks and beats they like, even (as in the case of the cinematic fight) they’re not terribly well-suited to prose.

So, what can prose do well?

Man, isn’t that a question with deep roots.  I’ve been pondering it for a while, and damn if I’ve come up with a solid answer, but I have a few ideas.

Prose can convey an immense amount of narrative in a terrifyingly brief time.  For my money, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather—the book, I mean, not the film—does an amazing job of establishing the Corleone family enforcer Luca Brasi as a Man With Whom You Do Not Fuck, even though we never see him in action.  If you’ve only seen the film, Luca is the guy who wanders around the wedding stammering and practicing how to pay his respects to Don Corleone, who’s then killed at the beginning of the feud.  (The “sleeps with the fishes” scene.)  He’s a tough operator, but he doesn’t stand out from the Don’s other soldiers.

In the book, Luca’s a demon.  The last time someone tried to kill Don Vito, Luca went on a non-stop murderous rampage through the New York underworld, the kind of stuff that would fill a whole grindhouse movie.  We don’t see any of this.  We receive second-hand descriptions, stories of him tying people to chairs and attacking them with axes, all in others’ mouths.  If I remember correctly—I don’t have my copy of the book to hand, and it’s been years—this material totals up to a page, maybe two, but it’s enough for us to be absolutely certain that as long as Luca’s alive, no one will dare touch Don Corleone.  (So, of course, when Luca gets assassinated, we all of a sudden fear for Don Corelone’s life.)

We never see Luca Brasi fight in The Godfather.  We know the danger he presents.  That’s enough.

Prose also has the power to convey information and focus through ambiguity.  Here are the opening lines of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon:

The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.  Two days before the event was to take place, he tacked a note on the door of his little yellow house:

At 3:00 PM on Wednesday, the 18th of February, 1931, I will take off from Mercy and fly away on my own wings.  Please forgive me.  I loved you all.

(signed) Robert Smith, Ins. agent.

Think about how much we get from these few words, without any feeling of forced “info-dumping”: tragedy, setting, time, fault.  But Morrison also introduces signifiers with unresolved meanings.  What does Smith or the book mean, exactly, by ‘fly’?  Or, for that matter, by ‘his own wings’?  And Mercy, what’s that?  Of course, the whole book’s about working out the answers to these questions—Morrison hasn’t just introduced ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake.  But by introducing a few terms without easily decidable meaning, she forces us to ask the questions she wants.

Film’s attempts to accomplish these same effects feel more forced, to me.  Datelines and time stamps are artificial, and textual ambiguity is much harder to achieve, since we don’t have a text to ponder; in film, we see whatever stands before the camera lens (though there are great moments of inversion, misdirection, and visual or sensory confusion in cinema too—c.f. Rian Johnson’s Brick, or the scene in Sneakers where Robert Redford claims to have been driven, blindfolded, through a cocktail party).

Storytelling—by which I mean, moments when characters tell stories—works brilliantly in books, because when we’re reading a book we are reading a story—when I read, say, Smiley’s monologue about Karla in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I am engaged in the same sort of mental work as I am when I read Smiley going about his day in third-person narrative.  When a character monologues in a film, I am watching that character tell a story, and imagining the events that character describes—which is a different mental activity than normal moviegoing.  (Of course, filmmakers can address this issue by transforming monologues into staged moments in their own right—the 2013 Tinker, Tailor turns Karla’s monologue into such a dramatic moment that I at least was riveted.)  Absalom, Absalom lives and breathes this technique—we read tales nested within tales nested within tales, the same story told time and again with different emphasis in different characters’ mouths as interlocking truths come clear.

(And then of course we have questions of unreliable narration, c.f. Eco, Wolfe, etc.)

Much as prose can layer realities, it can also extend or compress time to ludicrous degrees.  I’m not talking about slow-motion work, though some of the ship-to-ship battles in Peter F. Hamilton’s gloriously mad Nightsdawn Trilogy—dancing from microscopic particle interactions on a timeframe of nanoseconds to supernova blasts—would put any Wachowski-inspired bullet-time fantasia to shame.  For example, here’s an early passage from A Wizard of Earthsea:

This was Duny’s first step on the way he was to follow all his life, the way of magery, the way that led him at last to hunt a shadow over land and sea to the lightless coasts of death’s kingdom.  But in those first steps along the way, it seemed a long, bright road.

When he found that the wild falcons stooped down to him from the wind when he summoned them by name, lighting with a thunder of wings on his wrist like the hunting-birds of a prince, then he hungered to know more such names and came to his aunt begging to learn the name of the sparrowhawk and the osprey and the eagle.  To earn the words of power he did all the witch asked of him and learned of her all she taught, though not all of it was pleasant to do or know.

Talk about telescoping!  The first sentence covers Ged’s (who at this point is called Duny) entire life, all the way to the end of this book if not the entire series.  Then we swoop back to the child’s point of view.  Next graf, we get a single brilliantly observed image, “lighting with a thunder of wings on his wrist” (and note the slight lighting-thunder / lightning-thunder wordplay, and the delicious honeysweetness of doubled “wings” and “wrist”, because LeGuin, goddammit, LEGUIN!), one of those sharp word-pictures that seems to last forever—yet within the same sentence we jump through what would have to be, in cinema, a scene—little Ged runs to his aunt, “aunt teach me the names of sparrowhawk osprey and eagle”, aunt grins evilly, “well, you must do exactly what I tell you,” “yes I’ll do it,” cue then us having to see what unpleasant things she asks him to do and know, which would certainly be more pleasant than the things we invent in our mind when we read that final sentence.  And after this we zoom back out in a different direction to discuss Gontish culture and the business of wizards.

Prose can also convey immense amounts of information by focus.  Noir fight scenes like this one from The Big Sleep do this well:

Agnes turned the gun away from me and swung it at Carmen.  I shot my hand out and closed my fingers down hard over her hand and jammed my thumb on the safety catch.  It was already on.  I kept it on.  There was a short silent tussle, to which neither Brody nor Carmen paid any attention whatever.  I had the gun.

And this is one of Chandler’s wordier fights!  I don’t have a copy of Hammett’s The Thin Man to hand, my own personal failing I’m sure, but I am positive I remember a fight between Nick and some mook that goes down like this:

He had a gun.

I took it from him.

Both scenes establish Marlowe’s and Nick’s competence with violence by not describing that violence—because it’s so routine for these characters that they need not focus on it, any more than White need focus on Lancelot’s unhorsing of knights at tourney, or Shakespeare need establish Othello’s military competence beyond that one brilliant line:

Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.

Wrestling for a gun is routine enough, for Marlowe and Nick, that they need only relate the pertinent information about the event: its outcome.  (And, in the case of The Big Sleep, the disposition of the safety catch, which captures Agnes’ character in a nutshell.)

Alternatively, some depictions of violence capture its aesthetics through the tools of rhetoric rather than dance.  The great Ming Dynasty novels deploy this effect particularly well—especially in the poetry fights of Journey to the West.  Opening vol 2 of Anthony C. Yu’s translation to a random page, in this case 47, I find:

[The monster, wielding a scimitar, and Zhu Bajie, wielding his muckrake], summoning their magic powers, mounted the clouds to fight in midair.  Sha Monk abandoned the luggage and the white horse; wielding his precious staff, he joined the fray also.  At this time, two fierce monks and one brazen monster began a savage battle on the edge of the clouds.  Thus it was that:

The staff rose high, met by the scimitar
The muckrake came, blocked by the scimitar
One demon warrior used his power;
Two divine monks displayed their might.
The nine-pronged rake, how truly heroic!
The fiend-routing staff, ferocious indeed!
Their blows fell left and right, in front and in back,
But squire Yellow Robe showed no fear at all. [That’s the monster -ed.]
See his steel scimitar shining like silver!
And, in truth, his magic power was great.
They fought till all the sky
Was fogbound and beclouded;
And in midmountain
Stones cracked and cliffsides collapsed.
This one, for the sake of fame,
How could he give up?
That one, for the sake of his master,
Would surely show no fear.

That stampeding sound, I hope, is all of you going to buy copies of Journey to the West right now.  Poetry emerges to signal a change in the style of the text—much as fight scenes are shot and formalized differently from dialogue in action cinema.  And, by moving to poetry, the writer gains the freedom to play weird language games—rhythm and rhyme, aggressive parallelism, alliteration—conveying the excitement, pulse, and power of staged combat in a manner paragraphic prose finds hard to imitate.

In fact, with its frenetic pace, and the fact that Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing are both fundamentally comic characters (one is the Sancho Panza of divine shapeshifting pig monsters, the other God’s own straight man), the poem comes off in context as something like the following scene from Project A:

… Okay, you got me, I just wanted to include a Sammo Hung clip with this post.

Of course these techniques (compression, expansion, ambiguity, focus manipulation, storytelling, unreliability) are the tiniest fraction of the prose fiction toolkit.  Metaphor!  God, I could write for days on metaphor and simile. Especially as they apply to action! Think about all the awesome comparisons of the Iliad. If I tried to make this comprehensive, I’d kill myself on this one essay, and I have books to write.

So, why did I spend so much time on this essay?  For one thing, it amused me to do so. For another: in online discussions of style, I tend to see prose work analyzed on a single axis, from “purple” to “invisible,” neither term well-defined—a tendency that in my opinion ignores the beating heart of prose—what it does well, what it does poorly, what separates a book from a film, and what makes books teleologically better, that is, better at being books.

Because look at that Project A fight scene again—we get Sammo Hung’s sense of humor, and Jackie Chan’s, we get the joy these people have in one another’s presence, we get that they’re unstoppable side by side, that they know one another well enough to anticipate each other’s reactions.  If we were to be writing the book that was Project A, that’s the information we’d have to convey—breathless joyful partnership against all odds at a fast tempo.  The precise choreography of the fight seems incidental to that purpose.  The John Wick scene back at the top of the essay (you remember the top of the essay?) conveys despair, fury, method, and cold cold logic—in John Wick, the book, our job would be to convey those, not to describe step by step the death ballet.

See?  I told you this would be about writing sooner or later.

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