Short Story Sunday: The Call of Cthulhu

Okay. Now we finally get to that first short story I meant to post a couple of weeks ago…

I’ve been catching up a little on my classic horror reading, mostly because I’ve been working on writing a story for an anthology called Tomorrow’s Cthulhu, which I wrote about in a previous post. Anyway, I figured I’d share.

If you haven’t read it, The Call of Cthulhu is one of the most important stories in the Lovecraft canon. If you like horror, then this is a must read, but even if you’re not a horror person, the story is still an important part of Sci-fi and Fantasy literature.

I hope you enjoy the story.

Chaos and Control: A Review of The Night Circus

Le Cirques des Reves, or The Circus of Dreams, is a unique and magical place open only from dusk until dawn in whatever city it happens to show up in. Guests can wander through a myriad of tents, each featuring different acts, like illusionists or fortune tellers, or active spectacles, like a multi-level labyrinth. The tents change, new ones always being added, and there are too many for one person to ever fully explore. Every visit to the place is different.

This is the backdrop for Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus. Set at the turn of the 20th century it is the story of two magicians (as in literal magic users, not tricksters) trained in two different schools of thought competing with the circus as their arena. They add new attractions to the space, trying to one-up each other or build off of what the other has created. They have been set against each other by their mentors, bound to the challenge, whose rules are kept a mystery, through magic. But what begins as a rivalry turns into a romance, which complicates the challenge.

As a debut novel I think The Night Circus is very impressive. Morgenstern created an immaculate world into which she is able to draw the reader with her clean, but well-polished prose and interesting cast of diverse characters. The structure of the story corresponds to the circus in many ways. Its non-linear format and the way that it hops between many different perspectives feels almost like visiting all of the different tents, seeing bits and parts of a larger world that slowly coalesces into a sensible whole as the story comes together.

To me the “coming together” is probably the weakest part of the story. Light spoilers ahead…

After such an immaculate build-up, I felt that the ending was a little bit flat. The mentors, who are clearly not good people, were let off the hook for their role in the tragedy and tumult that has occurred largely due to their little bet. And the resolution of competition between their students, Marco and Celia, felt a little forced, especially given all of the build-up and the amount of time the story covers. The competition, the romance plots, and the fate of the circus are resolved neatly without the heightened drama or conflict I was expecting, seemingly through fate more than anything else.

However, despite my misgivings about the ending, I did enjoy reading the novel. And I will say that I didn’t find the ending immediately disappointing after finishing the book. I just considered how it might have been better after I reflected on it for a little while. As I said, Morgenstern’s world is incredible to explore, and the writing really makes it pop. I think this book is certainly worth your time, especially if you’re looking for a story that is somewhat Gaiman-esque, and I am very much looking forward to seeing what other stories Morgenstern produces.

Short Story Sunday: Inter-Exo

So last week I said that I had a post in mind before I decided to share “The Cheater’s Guide to Love”. This is not that story. I found out earlier this week that my friend Julie Steinbacher had her first short story published, so I thought I’d share this with you all instead. I promise I will eventually get to the classic that I was initially going to share…

Inter-Exo is a story about teenagers who have grown up in a society where they have to live in exo suits for fear of catching a disease that might kill them. They are learning to explore and come into their own bodies, the way we all do, only with the added complication of spending most of their time encased in metal.

Double Future: A Review of The Peripheral

If you want to boil The Peripheral down to its bare essentials of plot, it is, simply put, a murder mystery. A woman named Flynne Fisher witnesses another woman’s murder while she is playing bodyguard in a simulation that she thinks is a video game. The woman in question turns out to be the sister of publicist Wilf Netherton’s former client and lover Daedra West. Together, and with the help of some friends, they have to work to ID the murderer before he manages to kill Flynne and silence her testimony.

Of course nothing of Gibson’s can be so simply summarized. For instance, to call Neuromancer a heist novel would completely miss the point. Much of what made Neuromancer so great was the writing (and the genius of bringing stylized noir writing into a sci-fi work) and the brilliant vision of the setting, and The Peripheral is similar in this regard.

The story takes place in two timelines, one in the far future at around 2100, and one in the near future of the 2030s. Flynne lives in the near future at the time when the world is starting to fall apart. She lives in rural Virginia, an area that makes most of its income from “building” or the drug trade, which, along with everything else, appears to be largely assisted by 3D printing. Work is scarce, and she makes her money playing on virtual reality video games for wealthy people who are willing to hire good players as well as “fabbing” (or printing) products. She also mentions that she was going to join the army, which her brother and all of his friends who lived in the area did, only that her mother got sick and she didn’t feel she could leave. This seems like one of the few ways people can escape from the county, at least for awhile.

Wilf lives in the far future at a time when the people who are alive are mostly oligarchs or their descendants. Some are agents who are very well connected and have been alive for an incredibly long time. Nano technology has helped to clean up the environment, extend lifespans, and alter humanity or what is left of it. Any manual job is automated, and people seem to spend their time cultivating various hobbies or working in fields that require a human touch, like the arts, diplomacy, or publicity.

The people of Wilf’s time have also developed a new hobby of developing “stubs”, timelines that are spun off from reality, that they can manipulate. The book doesn’t ever describe the process of creating these stubs, only that they are run out of some mysterious server in China. My guess would be that they are highly detailed recreations of the world generated from a point when everything became wired and could be surveyed (the book mentions stubs can only be pushed back to 2028, which is my guess as to when the world is totally wired in this setting). Flynne’s world in the book is actually along one of these “stubs”, not the primary timeline of reality.

The characters are able to communicate with each other on the net across the timelines. They can also plug into artificial bodies to inhabit the other world. In Flynne’s (comparatively) low-tech world, this means that Wilf can ride around in something called a Wheelie Boy, basically a screen with some tires. Flynne visits Wilf’s world by taking over a fully functional artificial body known as a peripheral.

The two times chosen fence a series of events known as “the jackpot” that end of killing off roughly 80% of humanity by Wilf’s time. As Wilf describes it, the jackpot isn’t any singular event but is tied into a series of things largely related to global warming and scarcity of resources. The split allows Gibson to delve into how humanity has fared both in the near future and in the far. And in neither instance do things look particularly great.

Outside of the technological differences, Gibson separates the two characters through the writing and the distinct voice that each has. Not only does the voice and dialogue of the prose change between characters, but so too do the “omniscient” parts of their perspectives. Unlike the highly stylized highly stylized prose of Neuromancer, the writing in this book is often very sparse. Still, that captures the character’s mindsets, especially Flynne’s, very well.

Though not complex or stylish, I found the writing drew me in to the story and the setting. Much of its power is also derived by what isn’t said, what can be read between the lines (or what’s left hanging with the clipped dialogue), and melancholy tone this produces.

And this brings us to the ending of the story, which I have to provide some light spoilers about in the next three paragraphs to get across the point I want to make. So, if you want to go into this book totally blind, skip to the part after “Conclusion”.

I think there are people who will come to the ending and be disappointed thinking that it is too happy. I know of read at least one review that felt as much. The characters pair off romantically and things seem to be going well for them following the events of the murder mystery. However, I think viewing the book this way is really only looking at its surface and doesn’t take in the broader implications of what is going on.

While Flynne is probably the more interesting and dynamic character in the book, Wilf provides an incredibly important perspective. And that’s because in many ways Flynne isn’t real. Her timeline is a spin-off from a server in China, and no matter what happens there, it can’t change the world in Wilf’s timeline. Her world is also at the mercy of the people in Wilf’s timeline, almost as if it is a game. At one point another “stub” owner is described as someone who lets his stubs fight wars to see what weapons will be generated in them, and then he replicates the results. Flynne is largely just lucky that Wilf and his friends are more benevolent.

I think the story is, in many ways, a story of yearning from Wilf’s point of view. He yearns for a past he’s never experienced because he’s bored with his future, and he can see that past in Flynne’s timeline, something that he feels is more authentic. He yearns for Flynne, a woman who is so different from the people in his world but whom he can never be with. And, as I said, both Flynne and her world are things that don’t even really exist, more like fantasies that he can only sort of experience. So while I can say the story isn’t overtly tragic, I also have a hard time seeing it as happy, considering these aspects of it.

Conclusion:

I think this is another great futurist book from Gibson. I’ve read a great many articles on some of the technologies that are being developed today. It’s impossible to say what will and won’t take off or what the future will look like, but Gibson’s depictions of the technology seem in line with what I’ve read about. On top of that he is really able to bring the setting around those features to life and show what the world for humanity might look like, not once, but twice, in the near future and the far.

Gibson’s return to the sci-fi genre is as good as I expected it to be (and since Neuromancer is one of my favorite novels I expected a lot). If you’re a fan of his work, you won’t be disappointed. If you like near future sci-fi, then I’d definitely recommend this. Honestly if you like sci-fi at all, I’d say it’s worth the read.

Bonus Section!

This is a podcast from The Guardian in which Gibson discusses Neuromancer. Check it out.

Short Story Sunday: The Cheater’s Guide to Love

I was initially going to share another story this weekend (tune in next week to see what it was!), but the holiday mood (bitterness) struck me, and it felt more fitting to share this story instead.

The Cheater’s Guide to Love by Junot Diaz is, in essence, a story about growing up. It follows the life of a guy named Yunior for five years after he is thrown out by his fiance for cheating on her. Despite this character’s unsympathetic actions and the series of mistakes or poor decisions he continues to make throughout the rest of the story, Diaz is able to evoke a great deal of sympathy in the reader for this character. I think a lot of this can be attributed to his use of the second person in this story, which fits it so very well and is also neat as so few writers actually use it.

Diaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has been hailed by some as the best book to be written in the 21st century thus far, and though I haven’t read it (yet), I can get an idea of why from this story. His prose is amazing, as is his storytelling, and the characters and situations feel relatable, even though some of them are far from what I’ve experience in my personal life. This is one of the best short stories I’ve had the pleasure of reading in awhile, and I definitely recommend it.

And now I wanted to discuss a slight change in direction for this blog…

Moving forward I’m planning to change the set-up and release content on Sundays and Wednesdays. As you may have guessed, Sundays will continue to be short story reviews and sharing. However, I’m planning to primarily be writing book reviews to post on Wednesdays. This is both an effort to write better content and to force myself to read more (which for a writer I’m pretty bad at doing).

This coming week I’m planning on doing a review on William Gibson’s latest novel The Peripheral. After that…well, I’m leaning towards reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, but don’t hold me to that. I may very well change my mind.

Two Short Films, Zero Words

This past week io9 shared two short films, both of which were entirely visual featuring no dialogue whatsoever. The filmmakers were trying to, as I read it, bring film back to some of its basic elements, focusing on the style of the animation and the ability to tell story through scenes rather than with words.

The Two Of Us was a fantasy story about a boy and a girl on the run from shadowy forces, trying to escape their kingdom and move on to a better world.

Le Gouffre, a film that was actually funded on Kickstarter, is about two friends who build a bridge across a gorge so that they can continue on whatever adventure it is that they are pursuing.

I found it interesting that two directors who chose not to use any words in their films had their works showcased so close together. It also made me think about the ability to tell stories in such a concise manner. Both of these films really had more tension and drama in them than the entirety of the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Both were also better love stories than Twilight (even if they weren’t love stories). And both eliminated an element that we often take for granted in film.

As a writer I thought about how one might approach storytelling in a similar manner. Flash-fiction sprung most to mind, as it is the genre that is the most concise and forces the writer to deliver impact while being efficient. But I think eliminating other elements could be fun to attempt as well. Like the films, cutting dialogue could be neat, focusing more on exposition. Or perhaps vice-versa. At the very least I feel like limiting oneself or cutting down to the bare essentials is a great exercise in creativity.

The Blade Runner View of L.A.

Well it’s a Friday, so who really wants to do (or read) anything serious? To that end, I thought I’d simply share something cool. Essayist Colin Marshall has been working on a series of videos called Los Angeles, the City in Cinema. In these videos he looks at how the world’s premiere movie city is itself portrayed in film.

Naturally, as a sci-fi and cyberpunk fan, the video that has most sparked my interest is his look into how Blade Runner portrays L.A. and how it has inspired what people think of when they think of L.A. in the future. Marshall discusses how Ridley Scott was able to use retrofuturism to let audiences connect with the film. Using familiar visuals, like old styles of architecture, and familiar themes, like the Noir detective story often associated with L.A., to keep audiences grounded, he was able to present a wildly futuristic story and setting that became easier to relate to.

If you’re a fan of Blade Runner, or even if you just have interest in the city of Los Angeles, I definitely recommend checking this video out. It’s only seven minutes in length, just about the right amount of time for some quick procrastination on a Friday. Amirite?