I’ve been a touch nostalgic this week. Some years ago I was a homeless hobo bouncing around the contiguous states doing odd jobs and busking to make my way. I didn’t lament my fate or sob into my coffee while going through it, and even now I appreciate the many lessons learned from that chapter of my life. It was challenging, at the least, and I am glad to be past it, but occasionally I miss the liberty of travel. (I thank my dear wife for helping me when I could barely help myself)
By “travel” I do not mean heading to a place with an intent (beyond existing in that place). The travel I miss is the act of putting one foot in front of the other until one is no longer in the place one was.
I walked a lot. Along interstate highways and train tracks I made my way. Highways get a good bit of deserved grief, but on foot they can be beautiful. Barreling past at 80 MPH, you miss the tiny details. The world is a blur of green, brown, and gray with the occasional billboard or road sign to break the monotony. At the blazing speed of 3 MPH you see everything. I’ve stopped along a fence to talk to a rust-brown horse in the middle of Oklahoma that was as curious about me as I was about it.
All these experiences inform my creative works. From my music to my writing, everything has traces of my time “between”. That is the space where things happen, not where you were or where you’ll be, but where you are.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.
Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad/ Roughing It
This weekend, my “itchy feet” (that’s hobo speak for “a desire to travel”) get a decent scratch. The family is heading out of state for a day for an event. We’ll gaze out the window and watch new parts of the world enter ours. As quickly as they come, they will go, but will have changed us. I can only hope that the kids won’t be staring at their tablets the whole trip. I hope they take a break, see new things, and let their world grow a little larger.
If the opportunity presents itself I will wander, if only for a moment, and expand my world. Even though the place we’re going is a place I have been before, there is always something new begging to be found if you take the time to look. It may be a shiny rock you didn’t notice before, or an angle you haven’t seen a familiar building from, but there’s something waiting for you to see it, feel it, know it.
Places are a lot like people. They may be the same person, but they aren’t the same moment. Neither are you. You have had experiences and thoughts that have shaped you even over the course of a few hours. You have lost and gained cells, hair, memories: you will never step in the same stream twice. So it is with places. No matter how familiar they are always changing, eroding, and shifting ever so much. Going anywhere is a new experience if you let it be.
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach
Eventually we will come home and the tiny parts will slip away. We’ll forget the shiny rock or the horse we flew past at 80 MPH and settle into our exhaustion. I will fire up my laptop and plunk down some bigger stuff, shove my notes into Scrivener, and crack open a beer.
And while the shiny bauble that caught my eye will slide into the back of my mind, it will find its way to the page. I will slip it into a story without a thought to where I saw it, or when. It will have etched its mark on me, and by extension on my readers. If I do my job well, you will see it in your mind, like the horse at the edge of the highway.
I suggest this: travel, even if it is only a stroll around your neighborhood. Take it all in and bask in the difference each time. Find your shiny rock and let it inform your efforts, from writing to painting to daydreaming out your window at work.
Fight scenes in fiction are often heavy dramas loaded with hefty dialogue and lots of circling. They are tense and gripping. They also seldom capture the feeling of a real fight.
Fights are quick and intimate. There is some preening that occurs, usually one or both parties (assuming two people) pumping themselves up: an attempt to build themselves up to the fight. This is because most people don’t want to get hurt, and in the back of their minds a fight holds the possibility they might. They have to convince themselves.
What fights are not are sex scenes. A fight is intimate but in that moment you are not counting sweat beads or noticing pressure points. You are swinging and kicking and hoping you get more damage in than they do. You’re not a ninja (probably), you’re a scared and angry human lashing out against what will eventually turn out to be a minor inconvenience in a long list of minor inconveniences.
I got in a fight in high school many eons ago. There have been more since, but this was my first. There are two versions of this fight: fiction and non-fiction. The fiction is that we fought for ten minutes and were cheered on by a crowd of hormonal teenagers, each voice frothing the row higher. What really happened was I talked a bunch of shit to convince myself to do the thing, swung my foot wildly at his head, and got kicked in the balls. It took less than a minute. I curled up on the ground holding my crotch and moaning, and he patted me on the back and became a good friend. Neither of us even remembered what the fight was about.
One fact I should point out: never once in any fight I’ve ever been in has time slowed. Time sped up. Every fight is a confusing mass of fists and feet and not knowing what is happening. I’ve left the scene of a fight wondering how many times I punched myself.
I would like to see more of the chaos and rapidity written into fictional conflicts. The mess and insecurity makes the fights more believable. A good fight scene is in the buildup and the wind down. The actual slap fest is boring and should only take a paragraph, two at the most.
None of this applies to epic battles. Those we want to last. Massive armies should have massive battles. Few things will kill a good fantasy war more easily than brevity. But with two people, my eyes will cross and I will set a book down if it stretches past a couple paragraphs.
I say this as a reader, but also as a reminder as a writer. Just as an overwrought sex scene can ruin an otherwise good story, so can a time-slowed-down-and-my-instincts-kicked-in slap-a-thon kill a perfectly good book. Keep it brief.
Time travel gets a lot of grief in fiction. Often I read stories where the “science” is overwrought or, worse, inconsistent. Stephen King once said a writer’s job is to tell the truth. I disagree. A writer’s job is to lie so convincingly, the truth becomes irrelevant. Any good liar will tell you that details ruin the lie but inconsistency murders it outright. Readers don’t want to think back to an earlier chapter where the science did one thing and now does another. If they question the truth, the story needs grief.
I have loved time travel stories since my first exposure to Doctor Who back in the 1980s. I stumbled across the show while staying up late and flipping channels on the tiny 12-inch cube that sat atop the antique (and non-working) Heathkit television my dad kept in the living room. PBS was showing “The Hand of Fear”, Sarah Jane’s last companion episode, and I tuned in about halfway through. I loved the bad puns and dry humor, but more than that I loved the absolute silliness of Tom Baker’s Doctor. I watched every episode the station aired from then on. It was (and still is) ridiculous, silly, and fun, but more than anything it was consistent.
[Side note: I’m absolutely in love with what Jodie Whittaker brings to the role. She makes an excellent Doctor and brings a much needed (and missed) light and silliness to the role.]
When I think of bad time travel stories, two awful ones come to mind: Time Changer, the story of an 1890s preacher who travels to the 21st century and is shocked, just shocked, that people get divorced and use “bad” language; and the cringe worthy Time Runner, the story of the universe’s worst time traveller (Sorry, Mr. Hamill, it’s horrid). The former is inconsistent (dude you traveled through TIME, and words and relationship issues are the problem? What about false prophets and televangelists that do nothing for those they preach to?) and the latter hoards bad plots like my dad hoarded non-working electronic devices (q.v. the Heathkit TV).
Some stories are terrible but fun (Time Rider, Time Cop 1) and others are fantastic (Time Bandits, Terminator). What makes these stories work better is consistency. I don’t care about the truth when I watch these because they do not call the truth into question. I never have to look back or say, “Wait, but you said/did X in that other scene!”
The bad news is, there will be more bad time travel stories written. It is inescapable. The good news is that every one of them teach us what not to do with our stories. That is why, as writers especially, we must read bad fiction. Make it through as much of a horrid story as you can. Learn what sucks and why. You don’t have to hit your thumb with a hammer to know it’s a bad idea. It may solidify the point, but so will watching someone else do it.
Antitopia will probably feature time travel though limited in scope. I think when we have a memory or imagine the future we are in that time, that moment, just not physically. And as magick and monsters play a role in Antitopia, one might affect a change in that mental state. Manipulating the past would be simpler, you change the collective memory. The future is tricky.
The things we do now can have a tremendous effect on the future. This is always hazy in fiction because there are infinite possible outcomes from a single moment. If I move my hand to the right while writing this, I might knock my daughter’s play-dough tools off the table. This might scare the cat, sending him tearing through the house. On his tear, he might claw his way through the living room right over the kiddo. The scars from that will leave her frightened of the cat, coloring her future interactions with all cats. I have given my child a phobia through a simple, accidental misstep. But what if I catch the tool, or don’t move my hand in the first place? Thus the future becomes a tricky adventure: even a simple step in a different direction can reshape the events you’re trying to effect.
[Note: I didn’t move my hand, the kid and the cat are okay.]
God(s) in Fiction
I am writing some strange things lately. Not that that is unusual in itself. The Antitopia Universe is a pretty odd place. After last week's post I got on a world-building kick and found a way to include some pretty odd critters in the evolution of conscious species. This whole mess got me thinking about god(s) in fiction. Not religion, necessarily, but the entities from which myths derive.
It could be argued, of course, that myths derive from human misinterpretation and ignorance, but we're in Fictionland, and that means anything is probable. Here's what probably happened in Antitopia. There are seven species of conscious beings (I've only defined three so far, but there's time) in the universe. Two are symbiotic in nature, those being my version of vampire and our good old human being. The other is Kardeshev V level crazy pants god things.
For those unfamiliar with the Kardeshev scale, it is a measure of civilization based on the ability to harness energy. Humans are around 0.73 on that scale with the potential to reach level I within 100 years or so. A level I civilization is capable of harnessing the full energy potential of it's home planet, and usually has to travel space due to demand outweighing energy supply. Level V civilizations have expanded to multiversal existence. Such beings would flit in and out of existence as we understand it without batting an eye.
These entities will likely play little part in the main stories of Antitopia. They will show up from time to time just to keep things weird, but they have no genuine interest in humanity. Woe betide us all should they ever gain an interest in us, because that kind of attention would be catastrophic!
This week's winning topic is brought to you by my friend John. And spite. He suggested some other topics that were more thoughtful, but this one is the one that got me thinking the most. I'm not very enthused by zombies, and never really have been. I may get kicked out of horror for this, but I think the zombie is the laziest monster in fiction. That said, I prefer to promote the things I love, so I will write about what I admire in zombies first.
They make a compelling bad guy. The perfect bad guy, in my opinion, is one which makes determining its motivation impossible. If you can't figure out what the baddie wants, they become difficult to defeat. Jason Voorhees was interesting and scary when he was a mask and a machete hacking up young lovers in the woods. Give him a morality and he becomes dull. Romero's zombies hungered for brains and while they were scary to my kid-mind, they grew tiresome when everyone and their mother started shoving out brain-eaters as their monster. More modern versions aim towards an unknown or undiscovered motive which makes them more interesting. The Walking Dead makes zombism a pandemic, and a disease's only known motive is to eat and reproduce. The zombies become a backdrop to the bigger enemy (humans are terrible) but make for a convincing menace.
And for me, that's it. Beyond being a wave of teeth and blood drops, zombies don't do anything. What we learn from zombie apocalypses is that human beings are awful and probably deserve their fate. As cynical as I may be, I still hold out hope for humans. I think with time we can move away from the rampant consumerism Romero's zombies represent and the mindless perpetual appetite of Kirkman's, and find ourselves an enemy worth fighting. Maybe we can have a lich represent corporatism...
Don't get me wrong, I will still sit down an watch a zombie flick and I'll probably enjoy it if it's a good story. But like Resident Evil 2 (Milla Jovavich era) I have no problem walking away when it loses me.
I do have a favorite zombie movie, though, and it may have tempered my view on all that have come since watching it: The Serpent and the Rainbow. While Wade Davis' methods and findings in his book may be suspicious, the movie made for some damned good story. I like the mythological and cultural zombie far more than what they've been turned into. The voudon zombi has the potential for redemption, where the pop zombie is generally cured with a shotgun. I think conflation of the two has left us with a terrible misunderstanding of a rich culture and a pretty lame monster to boot.
I guess the take away is that when you hammer people over the head with the same monster with little variety, they become bland. There is always potential, and more innovative writers show up every day, so who knows? Maybe the next round of zombie apocalyptics won't put me to sleep.
John makes amazing wood sculptures with stumps and a chainsaw and knows an awful lot about movies.