Sunday, July 15, 2018

Planetary Romance Meets Planetary Noir

At one time, science fiction was referred to as “scientific romance.” This was the term applied to the stories of H. G. Wells. “Romance” meant, not love or relationships, but a narrative based mainly on adventure and entertainment, a tale of the “marvelous or uncommon incidents” (the term was first used to describe the long Medieval tales of knights and their fantastic adventures).  So a story with a scientific background or inspiration, like what happens to a traveler on a machine that can move through time, got the label “scientific romance.”  Generalizing away from romance to any story or prose narrative (serious, comic, short, or long) and you get the more familiar “science fiction.” 

Then, a popular sub-genre of science fiction that started in the 1930s and 40s was “planetary romance,” in which, as Wikipedia says (bless its easily accessible heart) “the bulk of the action consists of adventures on one or more exotic alien planets, characterized by distinctive physical and cultural backgrounds.”  And a strong characteristic of this sub-genre is that such “planetside adventures” are more the focus of the story than the mode of travel to get there, or the hard science of the planet, or its technology.

The legacy examples are Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars and Venus novels, and Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon (when he was on Mongo). But these works are more credibly labeled now as “sword and planet,” where cultures use the sword as the basic weapon of force, and any technology included is just there to extend the adventures.

Purer examples of “planetary romance”—adventurous, entertaining, and filled with sense of wonder—were those written by Jack Vance, Leigh Brackett, Poul Anderson (though he does include science), Andre Norton (her SF), David Lindsay (A Voyage to Arcturus), Anne McCaffrey (the Pern books), Frank Herbert (Dune), Dan Simmons (Hyperion), and selections from the old pulp magazine, Planet Stories.

And, my latest novel, In a Suspect Universe.

The novel intentionally fits the planetary romance category, though it does add its own unique twists. I’ve described it—in “high concept” terms—as Adam Strange meets The English Patient meets H. P. Lovecraft. 

The story begins as obvious planetary romance:  a man’s desire for escapist adventure takes him to an exotic alien world where he encounters what he’s always wanted, a planet of wonder and mystery, and a woman he comes to love with whom he can experience it.

But he discovers that this great scenario comes at a very high price, and the story then turns into “planetary noir” (my own term, I believe), a dark and highly emotional confrontation with dangerous surprises, with secrets out of the galactic past, and a realization that even the nature of the universe is not what it seems, that it’s a “suspect” universe. The protagonist—Mykol Ranglen, and this is the second book about him—finds that the world and its people have their hidden stories and frightening enigmas.  Once having experienced his dream, he learns it can never be repeated and never returned to.  Then H. P. Lovecraft encounters Philip K. Dick. 

So the best way to describe the book is “planetary romance meets planetary noir.

And I loved how these differences confronted each other, how they came together and evolved, how the varied traces of pulp fiction and classic SF coupled with the darker narratives of today, how the familiar tale of a space colony met contemporary post-human uncertainties, how the strong space heroes of the past (only male then but also female now) fared in entering today’s dangers and new physics.

It’s a heady brew of romance, adventure, tragedy, and longing. 

I loved writing it. Working on it was my own personal escape.  

And I hope it becomes yours too. 


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Cover Reveal: In a Suspect Universe

When I first saw the cover by Bradley Sharp for a book of mine about to be released (it was The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes), I was in the hospital recovering from back surgery performed by three specialist surgeons. The surgery happened after  months of inexplicable neck pains, frightful double vision, and signs of bizarre destructive activity in my spinal column. I was feeling better—the surgery was successful—but also realizing that the recovery would be long.

And then came a sudden gift from the cloud. It was my best moment there in the hospital.

I received, by email on my iPhone, the image of the cover for my upcoming book, which was my very first novel. 

I became sooooo happy!

I had been worried, not knowing what the cover would be like, and having recently seen several books (for a favorite author) with covers I felt were completely inappropriate (not by Brad). 

But Brad’s rendition brought me not only a surge of relief but an uplift of joy. I was thrilled with it--with its suggestive accuracy, its emotional appeal, its symbolic rendition of the protagonist’s longings. 

I showed it to every nurse and physician who came into my room.

I didn’t think a later reveal could match the euphoria felt on seeing the cover to my first novel for the first time (I wrote about it in an earlier blog entry), but when Bradley Sharp is the artist, a second experience is just as exciting. 

See the official cover reveal from Dog Star Books here.  I reprint the cover below, but both covers can be seen in the column to the right of this entry.    

I have only those two examples so far (I saw his other covers but I hadn't read the books), yet I can see in them characteristics that would make both writer and reader mighty grateful for what he can do. 

First, he obviously looks into the manuscript to get ideas. When a cover is commissioned, authors receive questionnaires sent by the publisher that ask for short paragraph descriptions of the protagonist, the antagonist, the setting, and recommendations for what the cover could show, which are then sent to the artist.  Busy artists might use this material exclusively and never look at the actual manuscript at all. But Brad puts ideas into his covers that obviously come from his own examination of the manuscript--he does his homework, and it shows. The first cover included specifics about the jungle setting, its layers of growth, the “underworld” of luminescent vegetation, none of which were included in the description I sent. And the second cover has details in the misty section (see the square-rigger?) that also were not part of my questionnaire and yet do appear in the book. 

Second, he can translate verbal ideas into visual images, making suggestions or even  symbols of more abstract concepts from the story.  In both novels, there’s a deep connection between the protagonist and the alien planets he visits. The spread arms of the figure in the first cover represents this idea perfectly, as does the contemplative stance of the person--the protagonist again--in the second cover. These images convey ideas unconsciously accepted by the viewer:  the first figure “loves” the landscape, and the second is wary but fascinated, sensing a connection between himself and what he’s looking at, which could be threatening.  And the way the whitish mist (with its mysterious objects) is aligned with the head of the person suggests that such a connection might be closer than he expects (which is a major plot point).

Third, the composition.  Both covers use an overall symmetry (with necessary exceptions to it), which provides a sense of stasis or order in the midst of peculiar alien phenomena. The visual balance is like a pause, a moment of poised observation of an object that causes wonder and fear—with a notion that the wonder transcends the fear.  (This kind of symmetry reminds me of the best of Stanley Kubrick, his use of balance in 2001, of course, but even The Shining, to confront obscure and frightening phenomena.)

And fourth, the detail.  I mentioned the minutiae of the jungle in the first cover but also, if you look closely, you can see a ring-shape lurking in the sky (this refers to Annulus, a habitat in space that’s a setting in the novel).  And in the second cover, the “illuminated forest” and its various colors are highlighted with a glowing mist in between the trees—depicting the shape of the boughs, but also suggestive of the strangeness of the growth.  And note how the objects in the white mist—tentacles, arches, undefined structures—are different from the more natural ones around it, the forest and the cliffs.  This contrast is  part of the story.  And the mound behind the mist, even taller than what I imagined in the novel, is appropriately overwhelming for the protagonist.  (And, yes, those oval objects are eyes.)

So, if the point of a cover artist is to convey, in one stark and immediate image, the overall mood and idea of the novel, then both these covers succeed very well. The accuracy of the feelings conveyed might not be noticed on a first viewing (the novel must be read for that), but it’s still conveyed, and it reaches the visual part of the mind if not yet the verbal. But that's exactly what it should do--hit the brain immediately with a memorable impression.

Hey, maybe I write these books just so I can see the cover Brad will produce for them. 

I thank him again. And I thank Dog Star Books for choosing him in the first place.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Deep Story

In my latest novel, In a Suspect Universe, I mention the phrase, “Deep Story.” 

In a series narrative, like a set of novels with the same protagonist (say a detective who solves murder mysteries), or a television program with the same characters who have a weekly task to perform (like a group of agents investigating peculiar phenomena), there’s the typical surface story that concludes at the end of each novel or episode. The murderer is found, the crime explained, the phenomenon identified (maybe not always fully “understood” but at least the incidents are brought to a closure). 

But in some recurring series there’s also a story beneath the story, one that you only get hints of, one that’s never resolved at the end of any episode. We learn about it only in increments, providing an undercurrent that does not carry the promise of inevitable closure, a recurring mystery that might get further away from an ending even when the show’s approaching it. It has a different appeal from “resolution,” more like a knot that’s always being gathered but never quite tied.

Deep Story!  

The X Files was a perfect example.  We got our weekly dose of bizarre local phenomena—yeti, vampires, bumps in the night—independent and self-contained episodes. But underneath them we kept returning to the deeper mystery:  the cancer man, Mulder’s sister, government collusion with alien invasion.  This is not like a traditional story with beginning, middle, and end. It has only sporadic and non-linear hints of a vast amorphous undercurrent of events that happened, that are happening, and that will happen (if all very clandestine).  

It deals with conspiracies, covert associations, hidden secrets that “you don’t want to know,” that reek with the warning they’re “better left alone.” You want a traditional surface story to be laid out and examined, but a deep story you almost feel should be left untouched. It’s safer that way. It’s too big to be resolved, too out-of-control, too beyond rationality, too against the reassurance that all mysteries can be ultimately solved.  Instead of us longing to get closer to the answer, we become more wary, or more frightened, or more confused the more we “understand.” It’s forever unwinding, unveiling yet one more secret but remaining just beyond our grasp. 

And  it keeps us feeling there’s “mystery” in the world, leaving us with something always beyond—that the truth is even more “out there” than expected, that something haunting still exists to give spice to our otherwise sensible and “explained” lives. It promises more even when it delivers, and its “explanations” are usually just indicators of more to come.  

And somewhere while writing In a Suspect Universe, I realized that the story of Mykol Ranglen is part of a bigger story, a “Deep Story”—the phrase is even used in the book. The story’s incidents do get resolved; the conclusion pulls the novel’s incidents together (and I confess I love the ending). But I realized, while working the story, that more is going on, that a whole underside lurks beneath. 

I didn’t want to get into it too deeply in this novel, since too many questions would become frustrating, and this book wasn’t the right place for addressing the issues. But small hints that did come up I left in, little indicators that more-is-going-on than what the protagonists fully learn. 

Maybe it was just because I was watching the new version of Twin Peaks at the time, a series that lavishes in deep story. Indeed, in David Lynch’s work, the deep story almost drowns the surface story, infiltrates it and finally replaces it—making his work often baffling, since such a story only flirts with final clarification. I didn’t want to go that far in my book. And I have at least two more books in the Mykol Ranglen series (maybe three), so I have room to work on the deep story that’s been introduced and to move it forward.  

But then, in the end, is a deep story ever resolved?  

Both yes and no.  

You learn more about it. Secrets are revealed. But in many ways the solving of some issues leads to even more questions. As one case is closed, another opens—and the world takes on its mysteries again.

I don’t know yet how far I’ll go with this in the books. But a huge subterranean current, dark and weird, is flowing now through the connected plots, and it certainly will touch the later works.  

Oh, such devious fun fiction writers do have with their readers! 

They torture us. Yet we come back for more. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Prequel or Sequel??

When does a “prequel” become a “sequel”? 

If the second book written in a series takes place before the first book, then obviously it’s a “prequel,” right? 

But what if the story, though complete in itself and not dependent on the first book, tells the reader a lot more about the situations in the first book, the characters, the events?  What if neither book is dependent on each other, but after reading the second story a reader gets a clearer understanding of things in the first story?  So isn’t that the classic definition of a “sequel”?—that it adds to and clarifies (through an indirect way) what happened in the first book? 

I’m pondering this question because, all during the writing of In a Suspect Universe, the second book after The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes (the beginning of the “Mykol Ranglen” series) I’ve been telling people that it’s a prequel.  And, true, the story does take place before the events of the first novel, and the story is complete in itself, and the events of The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes are not dependent on its events. 

But it does take situations and concepts from the first book and, by showing another side to them, brings new light to aspects of the first story.

Especially, the second book explains the reactions and feelings of the main character Mykol Ranglen. Knowing Ranglen’s “backstory” helps the reader to see why he’s as secretive, quiet, and paranoid as he is in the first book—suspicious, careful, and very much a loner, not wanting to show much of himself to anyone, not even to his old “friends” Hatch Banner and Anne Montgomery (who we see briefly in the second work). I intentionally did not get too deeply into his character when writing the first book (and by “first” I refer to the order of how I wrote the books and how they were published) because the backstory that makes up In a Suspect Universe I already knew and had well in mind as I was writing the first book.

The plot of the second novel is actually older (in terms of being imagined) than the plot of the first novel.  It’s a story idea I’ve had for a long time, whereas the plot for the first book I put together as I was writing it.  I didn’t have the details worked out for the older story, but the basic plot and its consequences I knew long before I wrote the first book. 

So the “prequel,” though it didn’t exist yet, was very present in my mind, and it influenced the writing of the first book since it clarifies the reasons for how the protagonist thinks and behaves: why he keeps to himself, why he’s sensitive about relationships, why he longs to be away from people and yet at the same time wants to be with them, why he distrusts authority, why he feels guilty, why he’s so certain about some things and yet so uncertain about others, why he always feels a profound longing, and why deep down he knows he can never have what he wants. 

When you learn that much from the second book, then it sounds like a “sequel.” 

And the Clips, the great objects of information and power that everyone is looking for in the first book, we learn more about them too.  And it’s a different kind of knowledge:  it’s not just “more,” it’s also “other”—it takes a different direction from the assumptions of the first book.  In the second book we’re not so sure about them, and in many ways we have more questions about them at the end of the “prequel” than we did in the first book. This second book opens up our wonder—and fear—about the Clips, the Airafane, the Moyocks, more than did the later-in-time events of the first book. 

So, doesn’t that sound then a bit like a sequel?

And all this gets more complicated because what the reader learns and keeps from the earlier events are not the same things that the protagonist gets to keep. Mykol Ranglen will not be privileged with what readers of his story take away from the second book—what he gets he’ll most likely lose, keeping only hints of it while the reader keeps all the secrets he has to abandon.  (Why and how these things happens are major plot points of the story.)

Several mysteries will haunt Ranglen in vaguely unconscious and sinister ways for the rest of his life. But only the reader will know why.

So the question remains:  prequel or sequel?

In the end, I guess it has to be called a prequel simply because of the label’s basic definition—the second book’s story does occur before the first one. 

But since these two books will be part of a “series” (two more books are certain, and one other is possible), then we can just say “Book 2” in the “Mykol Ranglen Series” and leave it at that. 

But I’m still debating.  And I think anyone who reads the book will see exactly what I mean. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Obsession of Writing, or: Returning to a Blog

Okay, confession time: I’ve been uninvolved with this blog for a while. 

But why?

Let’s go back to the reasons I started it.  The “inciting incident” was to  share my excitement behind the publication of my novel, The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, but I also wanted to express many long-held thoughts on writing, science fiction, popular culture, film, graphic novels, photography, travel—all topics I’m fascinated by.  

So what took me away?

Simple! I was writing a second novel.

And when my focus on it, my drive and my interest, all became intense, I sacrificed the time on the blog to stick with just the creation of the book.  

I had little power over the choice. I was hooked on writing that novel, very much “in the groove”—rushing forward like a speedway—in deep point-of-view, deep story, Deep Creation.   

Because of my teaching schedule at Seton Hill University, I usually restrict my writing to the summer months.  I’m not good at writing just two hours a day and then “shutting it off,” going on to other things.  I get possessed by it and then can’t let it go:  I’ll write in the morning, write in the afternoon, write in the evening, then get up in the middle of the night and write some more. I’ll stop only to eat or go to the bathroom or if my muscles start cramping—and when I get up to move around, I think about the book.  

I remember a story about Picasso who, once he really got into working on a painting, would sleep in front of it so it would be the first thing he’d see in the morning, and he then could attack it immediately. I used to think that was a conscious choice based on strong dedication and duty.  But no. You have no choice. You get so obsessed, the work’s always on your mind. Even when you’re not actively thinking about it, it’s still cooking inside you, as if the novel takes over and starts using you—you’re just a laborer, a servile lackey, pure working class, and it writes you

You sneak away from conversations, wander off during television commercials, write notes on ragged scraps of paper, napkins, paper towels (Stendhal wrote on his fingernails).  It sucks you in, like Poe’s maelstrom. 

And you love it! 

Or, you’re beyond love. You’ve been deconstructed and rebuilt into a writing demon. 

And when all that occurred last summer, for it certainly did, I simply had no mental room for a blog.  Nor for taking trips, cutting the grass, doing home repairs, or maintaining connections with family and friends. 

Well, okay . . . maybe it didn’t go that far, and I still performed my school duties (I needed the money).  But otherwise, I was possessed. 

And the great reward was that the novel kept getting better, deeper, fuller. I was completely caught up in its world, traveling along inside its story, viewing another planet through my characters’ eyes, struggling with weird alien threats, haunted by mysteries, driven by longings. 

Remembering to sleep was like breaking off a love affair.  And a blog? Sorry! Not now, not yet. 

But I’m finally back, because—cheers and flag-waving!—the book, In a Suspect Universe, is done!
And accepted! At the publisher’s! With advance copies to be available at Seton Hill on June 22.  

More on that later. A lot more.  

But for now, know, till the next creativity-wave knocks me over (and it’s already starting), and for now, the blog is back!  

Friday, September 15, 2017

An Upcoming Presentation on the Sublime in Science Fiction

I’m giving a presentation on “Science Fiction Writing,and the Sublime” in the Uniontown Public Library Author Series on Saturday, September 16. So I want to give a quick preview here—a taste, a titillation, and an obvious come-on invitation. (The talk is open to the public.) I’ll be discussing what the sublime is, showing some classic examples of it in both art and interplanetary photography, then making links to science fiction, showing more visual art and reading from my own writing. I’ll include selections from The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, and possibly something from my upcoming In a Suspect Universe

I’m still putting the lecture together, the slides, artwork, photographs, and readings, so all of this is tentative and might change.  But I thought I’d include a few possible examples with just a line or two to indicate what I’ll be dealing with.  Beware that the labels at the end might sound a bit odd and over-the-top . . . but that’s the nature of The Sublime!  Hope you enjoy.  

The sublime in photography:

The sublime in art: 

The sublime in outer space: 

The sublime in science fiction: 

And a few choice topics and quotes to think about: 
  • The overwhelming
  • The unexplainable 
  • The inexpressible 
  • The terrifying
  • The "shock of imaginative expansion"
  • The ego made "to feel small in the world"
  • The "defeat" of apprehension, knowledge, and expression.  
(Hey, they didn't call it Astounding Science Fiction for nothing.) 

Hope to see you there.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Deep Places: the Fascination of Caves

I recently was asked to moderate a panel at Confluence (Pittsburgh’s SF/fantasy convention) dealing with “Deep Places: Caves, Dungeons, Holes in the Ground.” It was a good discussion, with fellow panelists Gail Z. Martin, Christopher Pisano, Ken Chiacchia, and Tamora Pierce. We all had a fine time presenting our takes on the subject, from actual real-world spelunking to subterranean tunnels under modern cities.

My own fascination with the subject of caves started long ago with a reading of Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth, which I read soon after seeing the film version made back in the 60s. There were radical differences between book and movie, but they both awoke a fascination with crystalline chambers inside the Earth, mushroom forests and living dinosaurs underground, a subterranean ocean that had to be crossed on a raft, and—in one of the most rousing climaxes you’ll find to a story—returning to the surface by riding up a volcano eruption.

And being on the panel made me wonder exactly what characteristics of caves we find so captivating (since, too bad, I don’t think we’ll find any living dinosaurs).

Here’s my list:

Absolute Darkness: On the surface of the Earth, darkness is never completely dark. We’ve all experienced dark nights and dark interiors, but the blackness in a cave is absolute. It’s so overwhelming (where you truly can’t see the hand in front of your face) it can give you vertigo, a sense of choking, and a commanding fear of moving in any direction. Nevada Barr, in Blind Descent (an excellent novel detailing the experience of being in a cave) gives a frightening description of it: “the darkness began to harden around her. It was not a mere absence of light, it was a substance, an element, a suffocating miasma that filled her ears, clogged her nostrils, bore down on her shoulders and chest. . . . she could feel the black leaking like raw concrete into her brain . . .”

Disorienting Perception. On the surface, you have a big sky naturally above you, a wide horizon encircling you, and a foundational ground beneath. Up and down are well defined, and clearly distinct. But not so in a cave. There the ceiling is often no different from the floor. They extend into each other through stalactites and stalagmites that often merge into towers and curtains. Both up and down are made of stone, and much of the cavity in between. And thus no defined reference points allow you to gauge distance. Objects are fractal: a ten-inch-wide nearby formation can look the same as a ten-foot structure further away. And the lack of distance-indicators can give you agoraphobia as strong as claustrophobia. Even lamps create as many shadows as illumination.

Imaginations Go Wild. Caves are not usually experienced through devices like telescopes, deep-sea immersibles, or hovering remote cameras (though they can be). More often you go there, get up-close-and-personal to bare rock, uncharted and labyrinthine acid-carved non-linear chambers. And thus you get a greater sense of your self. The only sounds you hear are your own, the only light is what you bring, and the undefined nature of what you encounter makes your imagination quickly overactive. The imagery we use to describe caves— “yawning pits,” “gaping mouths”—can make you feel you’re being swallowed, that the Earth is hungry, seductive, and beckoning. The darkness gets filled with your own projections and irrational fears. What lurks in those shadows ahead? What lurks behind? What lurks beneath, above, alongside? You meet, in darkness and undefined space, some of your own hidden terrors.

The Uncanny. Solid rock seems to behave in peculiar ways, creating unexpected formations. What appears to be lace is made of stone, snowflakes are composed of hard crystal, finely tinted translucent curtains are as solid as marble. The ceilings/walls/floors look melted, polished, decorated, poured, flowered, overgrown—and yet they are lifeless and motionless, unchanging in time. For example, Tolkien in Lord of the Rings has Gimli describing the abundant—yet beautiful—strangeness of the formations in the caves behind Helm’s Deep: “folded marbles, shell-like, translucent . . . fluted and twisted into dreamlike forms; they spring up from many-coloured floors to meet the glistening pendants of the roof: wings, ropes, curtains fine as frozen clouds; spears, banners, pinnacles of suspended palaces!” It’s all just rock, but the intricate surprises that the rock can manifest through age-long dissolving-and-deposits suggest plants, forests, cities, clouds, castles, animals, bones, and stars.

Deep Time. To go down into the Earth is to go back into the past. No wonder the earth is where we place time capsules and buried treasure—they’ll be preserved. And it’s no surprise that Verne placed his mastodons and dinosaurs into deep caves. Caves feel incredibly old, like some ancient attic. They change imperceptively, but only over long-stretching periods of time—centuries and eons. Ursula LeGuin described the underground sense of time in her marvelous The Tombs of Atuan (where a good part of the book occurs in the total darkness of a subterranean labyrinth): “The dust was thick, thick, and every grain of it might be a day that had passed here where there was no time or light: days, months, years, ages all gone to dust. . . . No light; no life; no least stir of spider in the dust or worm in the cold earth. Rock, and dark, and time not passing.”

I’m sure more characteristics can be added, but this list is a good start on just what makes caves fascinating. They’ve certainly held an attraction for me, especially in how they turn up so often in SF and fantasy stories. One of my favorite writers who developed my interest in science fiction was Andre Norton, and the middle section of many of her books took place “underground,” whether in caves, artificial tunnels, or labyrinthine ruins. And even now, in my own The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, there’s a chapter called “The Underground,” where the protagonist awakes in the bottom of a forest which is so tall and thick that he thinks he’s under the earth, and he encounters all the disorientation, active imagination, sense of age, and uncanny beauty that go along with the experience of a cave.

So maybe another characteristic of caverns should be “inspiration”—to write a story.