Category Archives: Is Our Writers Learning?

Researching some more urban fantasy

HEROINE WORSHIP: Heroine Complex #2 by Sarah Kuhn opens a few months after Heroine Complex with Annie undergoing a slow meltdown for lack of any evil to fight or any chance to show off her heroic prowess. When Nate proposes to Evie, Annie finally has a mission — become the most powerful, most awesome maid of honor San Francisco has ever seen! As usual her bull-in-a-china-shop approach causes problems, but not as many as a rising wave of bridezillas possessed by demonic energy.

Telling this one from Annie’s POV was a good decision. She’s a good character, conscious she’s been a failure as a best friend, determined to make up for it and struggling with her own insecurities and love life. The book does a good job of fleshing that out. I will agree with some reviews that her boyfriend Scott isn’t well developed but he’s no worse than many female love interests — he’s there to love Annie and give her a reality check or two. That said, I never buy characters who calmly and accurately diagnose their emotional issues in conversation and there was way too much of that.

In terms of research for Impossible Takes a Little Longer I think the main takeaway is that it wouldn’t hurt KC to be a little more intense about stuff. It adds to Heroine Worship and I think it’s doable for my book.

One difference is that there’s surprisingly little comics reference (surprising to me, anyway) for a superhero story set in the real world, though I think that’s generally true of the superhero novels I’ve read over the year. My protagonist’s way more comic-book nerdy. But Kuhn does throw in a Clark Kent reference at one point where the leads really need to mention him, so that’s good.

Where Kuhn’s book had a lot of rom-com elements, FAE OF FORTUNE: Seattle Paranormal Police Department Book One by John P. Logsdon and Eric Quinn Knowles feels like a mashup of Justice League of America with the old Police Academy series.Rather than a lone wolf like Harry Dresden, protagonist Savannah Sage has an entire team of paranormals in the Seattle PD to work with her. Like Police Academy they’re all screwups — Savannah being put in charge of them is a demotion — but of course by the end of the book they’ve proved they have the right stuff. The mashup didn’t work for me, though I can see why it might appeal to other readers (and apparently does, as there are multiple sequels and the series is part of a larger, multi-book mythos).

I can’t say I learned anything from this one other than if you’re going to have an exposition-heavy first chapter it’s got to be good, interesting exposition and this wasn’t. The story, involving a scheme by a corrupt Kingpin-type, is okay and the fight scenes are good, but the conversational scenes between fighting not so much. The killer teddy bear is cute, though, even if describing it as a form of golem feels all wrong to me.

#SFWApro. Covers by Jason Chan and Murphy Anderson (bottom), all rights remain with current holders.

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Doing my research: Heroine Complex

I read Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine Complex four years ago. I recently reread it as research for The Impossible Takes a Little Longer. Given that book is about a woman superhero, I thought reading a book about a woman superhero, written by a woman, might be productive. Plus there’s that criticism from the editor who rejected Southern Discomfort that I should read more urban fantasy. So off I went.

For those who haven’t read Kuhn’s book, it’s set in San Francisco several years after a demonic portal opened. The portal closed but demons keep popping up; Chinese American Annie, going by the name Aveda Jupiter, takes them down with TK-enhanced martial arts skills. Unlike most urban fantasies, this all happens publicly and Annie thrives on the spotlight.

By contrast Annie’s Japanese-American best friend Evie is shy, insecure and happy to stay out of the spotlight as Annie’s support person. She manages everything from Aveda Jupiter’s social calendar to keeping her kickass leather boots clean. And she never, ever thinks about her own pyrotic powers, which she keeps under wraps.

Then Annie gets injured. Evie has to pose as her for a celebrity event but when demons crash the party Evie uses her fire powers to save the day. Suddenly everyone’s over the moon about Aveda Jupiter’s new ability so obviously Evie has to keep up the masquerade until they can figure out some way to transfer them to Annie.

The first thing I noticed — which I was sort of aware of already — is that KC doesn’t think much about clothes. Evie’s quite detailed about what she and Annie, and others in the cast are wearing; clothes aren’t something I think much about so I go light on that stuff. Most women I know think about them more — and clothes can be a good scene-setting detail — so maybe this is something to work on. Sure, KC could be the kind of woman who doesn’t care much, but that feels like a cop-out (by contrast, going light on clothing detail in Southern Discomfort, even in women’s POV sections, felt perfectly natural).

Second, like a lot of urban fantasy there’s a lot of Tell rather than Show; given the book got published and led to several sequels, it confirms my feeling this writing rules is overrated. Evie tells a lot about her personal history with Annie, her experience as an Asian American, her relationships with the other characters and the history of the city’s demonic incursion.  It works for me except when the villain gives an interminable explanation of her evil plan at the climax. That’s good news, seeing as Impossible has plenty of telling: the world’s alternate history is weird and there’s a lot I need to get across.

Third, one of the things the editor criticized Southern Discomfort for was a lack of urgency and tension. I’ve seen How To writing advice books that warn against casual, chatty scenes because they lack tension and lose the audience — though my writing group’s sometimes told me I should have more scenes with less tension, to let readers catch their breath (I’ll be blogging more about this).

Heroine Complex isn’t big on tension. The demon-slaying opening is played for humor: the demons are possessed cupcakes, Annie’s worst moment is that her zit is caught on camera. Then we get lots of Tell about growing up Asian, which is some of my favorite stuff in the book. This makes me hope that the personal scenes between my KC and her friends aren’t going to kill reader interest, Then again, a lot of Evie’s scenes are tense or awkward which adds to the drama and the interest. KC’s in a much better place a lot of the time.

Plus Heroine Complex‘s urban fantasy aspect is really the B-plot. Evie is the A-plot, a woman miserable in her own skin, blooming into a happy, comfortable person and rebuilding her relationships with the other characters. The heart of my story is the fight against a mystery misogynist wrecking KC’s life so maybe personal stuff needs to be kept down?

Studying other writers’ books isn’t a magic formula for success. “Successful author got away with X, therefore I can do X in my book” does not follow. There are lots of factors that go into making a book successful; it’s quite possible I’ll get the mix wrong. Still, I think rereading the book was helpful.

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Go Ask Alice What Rick Emerson Said

Rick Emerson’s UNMASK ALICE: LSD, Satanic Panic and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries is a good but flawed book, worth reading but often best taken with a grain of salt.

Emerson’s subject is Beatrice Sparks, the author of the supposedly True Story Go Ask Alice. Sparks actually made the whole thing up, pitching it to celebrity Art Linkletter who blamed his daughter’s recent suicide on drugs. Linkletter’s company published the book, but without any mention of Sparks, creating the impression it was a raw, unedited diary. Drugs were a big, controversial issue (President Nixon made them bigger to justify cracking down on liberals, hippies and blacks) and the book caught the zeitgeist perfectly, despite some reviewers who questioned it’s authenticity. The fact that it’s still being published, read and enjoyed years later shows Sparks did something right

Eager to replicate her success, Sparks wrote several more diaries. Jay’s Journal is the only one based on a real individual, teenage suicide Alden Barrett. His mother gave the diary to Sparks, hoping she could turn it into something other families could learn from (Emerson is very good showing how 50 years ago recognizing and treating depression weren’t much beyond the level of bleeding patients with leeches). Instead Sparks fictionalized it into the story of Jay, a teenager lured into Satanism and witchcraft which led to his death.

It was another fine job sensing the zeitgeist: the 1970s were full of fears about the occult, Satanism, etc., manifesting in fiction with The Exorcist and The Omen and assorted Marvel horror books. Emerson argues Jay’s Journal was a major factor in stirring the Satanic panic of the 1980s and 1990s, though he doesn’t offer any proof: the trigger cited in his accounts was fears about Dungeons and Dragons. And like I said, worries about Satan corrupting our kids were around before the book came out (and I think of them as largely old fears in new bottles)

Turning that family’s child into a monstrous fiction and passing it off as truth was a shitty thing to do. Beyond that, Sparks seems to be a thorough grifter, to the point of writing cover blurbs from non-existent doctors for her date-rape-and-AIDS diary It Happened To Nancy. She also constantly inflated her backstory, claiming she’d received various diaries from her patients when she was a therapist (she wasn’t) and adding a Ph.D. to her name.

I get the feeling Emerson’s more sympathetic towards her than I am: in his eyes she’s desperate to become an important writer, even if she has to bullshit her way to that status (I’ll come back to that point). I don’t believe he mentions how much she made off the books or whether he tried to find out (there’s no index to look for such details so I’m not sure whether that impression was accurate).

Like Bad Blood, Emerson’s account shows how badly the system deals with this kind of scam artist. Despite multiple red flags — Sparks could never keep her story about how she got any of the diaries straight — and factual errors (Nancy dies of AIDS in two years, which is freaky fast), Sparks’ publishers had no problems swallowing or pretending to swallow their truth. Newspaper reporters writing about Jay’s Journal never talked to the Barretts, even though Alden was known to be the basis for Jay.

Nobody questioned Jay’s story any more than they questioned the Satanic preschools or the occult powers of Dungeons and Dragons; as Slacktivist says, there’s always an audience that wants to believe this bullshit is real and the media and the legal system seem happy to go along. Emerson’s sometimes overly hard on the reporters — when I wrote about authors, I certainly didn’t go into fact-check mode to verify the story of their life. Then again, the ability of Satanism “experts” or someone like Sparks to get away with it shows the limits of running on basic trust.

But that brings us to the flaws in the book. Emerson acknowledges that his criticism of media gullibility leaves him open to questions about his accuracy. He states up front that all dialog is an actual quote; thoughts expressed in italics are from letters or diaries; while some of his sources use pseudonyms, he’s kept them to a minimum.

Trouble is, he writes a lot about people’s thoughts without any italics. For example when Sparks is at a major publishing event, she’s simmering that despite Go Ask Alice‘s success, she’s not recognized as the superstar author she is — but at least she’s in the winner’s circle, and that’s something. Most of this is not italicized. Does it have a source? If so, what? Or is it Emerson going the What She Must Have Thought route. That’s legit if marked as such but it’s not.

I could turn to the footnotes to find out — oh, there aren’t any. Emerson asserts there’s no point to having lots of citations when most of the facts can be verified with a Google search or a phone call; he wanted a fast moving book, not one bogged down with citations. But that’s the point of footnotes or endnotes, to provide citations without slowing things down.

I agree not everything needs to be footnoted: I have plenty in Undead Sexist Cliches but I don’t footnote things like who Emma Goldman was. However “you can google it” is not an excuse; “you can find it with a phone call” even less. Without footnotes I have no way to know which is which — and even if I called most of the people Emerson interviewed, would they talk to me? And would google turn up the personal letters and diaries Emerson drew on?

With footnotes I could see where Emerson drew Sparks’ thought balloons from; without them I’m suspicious whether they’re real. It doesn’t help that Emerson holds up Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City as his model because Larson had no qualms presenting speculation as fact. But at least Larson acknowledges the speculation in the endnotes; Emerson doesn’t have any, making accuracy more nebulous.

Unmask Alice is still a good book and I don’t feel the entire thing is a pack of lies. I am not so sure about the truth on the margins.

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Back to where it began: rereading Storm Front

Jim Butcher’s first Harry Dresden novel, STORM FRONT  established urban fantasy as it’s now known — magical protagonists fighting evil in an urban environment. Before that I’d seen the term used for fantasy stories set in contemporary cities but nothing like what it means now. And while Butcher isn’t the first wizard PI, Glen Cook’s Garrett and Michael Reaves’ Darkworld Detective were operating in a fantasy setting, not contemporary America.

It’s noteworthy that Butcher spends the first few pages establishing the premise. A mailman sees the “Harry Dresden, Wizard” sign on Harry’s office door and makes some jokes. Harry explains that yes, he is a real wizard tackling magical matters — something anyone picking up an urban fantasy two decades later probably takes for granted.

After the light, expository start, things get serious. Murphy, Harry’s friend on the force, calls him in to investigate two people whose hearts were ripped from their breast during sex. Harry confirms that yes, it’s magical. There’s also a worried woman who wants Harry to find her missing husband. Complications ramp up fast. Johnny Marcone, the Chicago mob-master, warns Harry off Murphy’s case (if there was an explanation later in the book, I skimmed over it). One of the victims worked for a vampire running an escort service. A wizard who thinks Harry is a killer — Harry had to murder his mentor in self-defense years earlier — is convinced he’s behind whatever’s going on. The killer’s magic attacks on Harry get stronger and stronger.

It’s a really good book and holds up despite the boom in urban fantasy since. I’m not sure if the plot ties together perfectly but it moves fast enough I don’t mind. My only real issue is that Harry’s a sexist jerk who feels women are beautiful flowers who should be sheltered and cared for accordingly, even someone as tough as Murphy. The book (and the characters) keep calling Harry on his sexism but as I’ve said before, that’s not good enough.

I was reading this to get a better handle on urban fantasy as a genre in relation to Southern Discomfort and Impossible Takes a Little Longer (you can see some of my past reading on those lines here). The first thing I noticed is that it’s very much in the hardboiled PI vein. Harry’s a loner (though unlike Raymond Chandler’s heroes he has a very large supporting cast), largely isolated from the police and almost as cut off from the wizarding world. His friendship with Murphy is a tenuous one as there are things he can’t tell her. The worried wife who hires him has a hidden agenda. There’s nasty stuff going on below the surface of Chicago and not everyone’s what they seem. And yes, the wife hiring him ties into the big murder case.

Another is that after the low-key opening, things get tense — the bloody murder doesn’t hurt — and keep getting tenser. Harry’s unable to tell Murphy everything because of wizard rules, which makes her increasingly hostile and unhelpful. Initially the focus is on the mystery; then, as he gets a few clues, the personal attacks start. They elevate in intensity until at the climax Harry is dealing with the wizard’s attacks, plus some giant scorpions, plus a demon. By the time of the recent Peace Talk, Harry’s suffered from the same kind of power creep as Superman, so nothing less than a demigod can take him down. Here, though, everything’s still manageable.

Unlike Date With Death and Crossroads of Bones (see the list-link above), the tension doesn’t fade away when Harry gets involved with Susan, a tabloid reporter interested him as both a story and a guy. Harry’s apartment is under attack and he’s dragged Susan inside a protective circle. Unfortunately she’s downed a love potion Harry made (not for unethical reasons) and now Harry’s having to fend her off while also fending off the mage attacks.

As I’ve commented before, I’m not sure much of this will help with Southern Discomfort because it’s more urban fantasy-adjacent than UF itself. But it does make me think I’m on the right track in my Impossible rewrite: tighter plot (not everything coming together), more mystery, rising threat levels. So it was worth the time, aside from my enjoyment.

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Is Our Writers Learning? Abbott by Saladin Ahmed

It’s a common complaint that bringing in writers from other fields (TV, novels) to write comics doesn’t work well (case in point, Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis). They may be good but comics is a different medium and they can’t always pull it off.

In ABBOTT, fantasy novelist Saladin Ahmed (with art by Sami Kivela) shows it can be done, though this works better as a period historical thriller than a fantasy. Spoilers follow.

Elena Abbott is a chain-smoking (I often complain about how stories set in the past underestimate the amount of smoking there was. Not this one) reporter in 1972 Detroit. Abbott is black in a racially tense city. She’s also an independent, self-supporting woman (divorced her cheating husband a while back) and bisexual (her former lover plays a supporting role). Abbott has also made a lot of enemies because on top of the city’s regular racial decisions she recently covered the unjustified police killing of a black man, which goes over as badly then as it does today. Her boss sticks up for her but the paper’s board wants her gone.

In the opening chapter the police are investigating the killing and butchering of a stolen horse. They’re blaming the Black Panthers which Abbott points out is ridiculous. At a murder with a mutilated black corpse, Abbott sees visions of shadowy creatures, which reminds her of the equally unnatural murder of her first husband, Samir. It turns out there’s a supernatural force behind it, the Umbra shadow power. It’s agent is Professor Bellcamp, a member of Detroit’s white elite who believes this shallow, materialistic age needs a kick to the head which his dark power will provide.

What struck me about this is that there’s not a lot of period detail compared to what I like to put in or to Max Allan Collins’ First Quarry. The story could easily be shifted to the present and hardly change anything (well, the smoking). But it still worked for me as a historical piece, perhaps because it has echoes of blacksploitation 1970s films — Abbott could easily be a Pam Grier character. Ahmed deals with the ugly racist and sexist sides of the past much better than I could — I’m just not comfortable writing so many racist or sexist characters as we see here.

Surprisingly given Ahmed’s a fantasy writer, that side of the book is less interesting than the mundane stuff. Abbott is a Chosen One, the Lightbringer who must stand against the Umbra. Bellcamp is a pompous villain whose philosophical statements about society and why he yearns to destroy it just sound idiotic — not that there’s anything wrong with an idiot villain, but I kept wishing he’d shut his yap. And the villains go down awfully easily, without Abbott even stepping into her Lightbringer status.

Despite the flaws, still well worth reading.

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Is Our Writers Learning? A Date With Death by S.C. Stokes

A DATE WITH DEATH is a prequel to the Conjuring a Coroner series by S.C. Stokes, about coroner and unregistered with Kasey Chase. We meet Kasey going about her job, then she’s called in to autopsy the body of Lester Harrington, suddenly deceased gazillionaire. It’s off the books because Harrington’s right hand and estate manager, Vincent, doesn’t want any publicity shining on the family; in return, under-the-table payments will pad out Kasey’s department budget (her boss is down with this).

It soon becomes clear Harrington was murdered, probably by one of his five kids. And his will leaves everything, tontine-style, to the last child to remain alive, an incentive for lots more murder. While the opening of the book is insanely info-dumpy (I really didn’t need to know Kasey’s backstory and magical nature in this much detail up front), the old-school mystery set-up looked promising. Unfortunately it rapidly descends into a mass of generic magical battles that left me underwhelmed. Plus the killer was precisely who I pegged early on — this is one of those books where the least likely suspect really is the murderer.

Still, in light of my ongoing study of urban fantasy for improving Southern Discomfort and Impossible Takes a Little Longer the book did get me thinking how much urban fantasies seem to revolve around mystery. The villain’s identity, and their endgame. That has me wondering whether Southern Discomfort, where Gwalchmai spills much of the beans up front, would benefit by cutting out much of his viewpoint. Not all — he provides a lot of information you can’t get any other way — but reducing his appearances would add to the mystery aspect. It might be worth trying. Impossible already has a strong mystery set-up.

So I shall throw that thought into the mental mill and see what happens when I grind it.

#SFWApro. Couldn’t find cover credits, but rights to the image remain with current holders.

 

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Is Our Writers Learning: Crossroads of Bones by Luanne Bennett

As you may recall, one of the Southern Discomfort rejections I got last year recommended reading more urban fantasy (I’m also applying the lessons to Impossible Takes a Little Longer). So here’s my latest attempts, CROSSROADS OF BONES: A Katie Bishop Novel by Luanne Bennett (cover by Deranged Doctor Design).

Katie is a recent transplant to Savannah, GA, from NYC, a tattoo artist running a studio with two employees, Sea Bass and Mouse. She’s also half-dragon, a heritage that normally manifests as a spectacular back tattoo. If she’s aroused, endangered or stressed, however, her inner dragon wants to come out and play.

The plot kickoff is a creepy customer who demands a very precise tattoo. It turns out he’s a demon-god or rather one half of a demon-god imprisoned by the local magical council. Somehow part of him got out and the tattoo helps him manifest. If he can get his other half out, he’ll be unstoppable. The council figures that he’ll inevitably come to Katie, and that as the one responsible for releasing him she has an obligation to help put the demon back in the bottle.

I enjoyed this one, certainly more than the last urban fantasy I studied. It’s a pleasant read with some cute touches such a tribe of shifters who become inanimate objects. The biggest weakness is that much like the previous book, the suspense and looming threat stops dead when Katie goes on a date with the male lead — suddenly they have the time for a lovely romantic idyll. It doesn’t help that I didn’t buy Katie’s instant attraction to the guy at all. He seemed like such an obnoxious jerk I assumed her sudden lust indicated he was an incubus or something. I concede that’s partly personal taste — I hate arrogant jerk alpha-male romantic leads — but not entirely.

The second biggest problem is that Katie is too passive a protagonist. She doesn’t act on her own initiative most of the time, she’s pushed into it by someone else — the council, the demon, her boyfriend. And her dragon side plays much less of a role than I expected, which is a little unsatisfying.

So what did I learn? Like most of the other UF I’ve been reading since the feedback, there’s a lot of emphasis on community. Katie’s friends and employees play a large role in the story even if they’re not on the front line; her boyfriend and the members of the mages’ council do too. This seems to be the norm for UF; even loners actually have a large supporting cast. That’s a plus for Impossible — KC’s friends and community are a big part of the story — but maybe not for Southern Discomfort. There’s a community but Maria, my protagonist, isn’t part of it. She does make a friend but the community doesn’t open its heart to her, nor vice versa.

Maria is also pushed around a lot, but I think she pushes back and tries to assert herself more than Katie, even if it’s only by running away. In some ways Joan would make a more typical lead: she’s part of the Pharisee community and she’s determined to fight, but I still prefer Maria. And because I use multiple POVs, neither one will work as a first-person narrator, which seems to be the UF norm.

There’s also enough exposition here to make me wonder if I overreacted keeping it trimmed down in Southern Discomfort. There’s a more in Impossible, but hopefully both interesting enough and not done to excess that it won’t turn the readers off. I will say that despite Bennett pulling the old “my character is new to this milieu so that excuses lots of exposition” I didn’t find myself turned off as I often do.

Another thing that struck me is that, even aside from the romantic break, the pace here is relatively leisurely. I don’t mean that as a criticism but one of the comments on Southern Discomfort was that the pace was too laid back — urban fantasy requires more urgency and tension. While there is plenty of urgency and tension, there’s still a lot of that epic fantasy introduce-us-to-the-world leisure; if Harry Dresden is a hardboiled PI, Katie Bishop’s more a cozy protagonist. Which isn’t a criticism, just a difference. I’m sure there’s an insight I can gain for improving Southern Discomfort but I’m not sure what it is yet.

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From a trailer park to Chicago: two books

BLESS YOUR HEART: Fairy Tales of a Trailer Park Queen I by Kimbra Swain is an urban fantasy whose protagonist, Grace, is a fae royal in exile, currently living in an Alabama trailer park. Under the orders of this mythos’ magical council, the Sanhedrin (I have no idea why a magical body composed mostly of fae would pick a distinctively Jewish name) she helps out local law enforcement so she and top cop Dylan Riggs wind up investigating the supernatural murder of two kids, plus dealing with their relationship.

This one didn’t work for me. No sooner do we visit the crime scene, which Grace declares the most horrible thing she’s ever seen than she and Dylan take several chapters to discuss their relationship. I’m fine with this being a fantasy romance but the juxtaposition didn’t work. Nor did one big reveal which I won’t go into. And Grace doesn’t feel particularly fae — if she were a wizard or a djinn it wouldn’t have changed much.

CLARK AND DIVISION by Naomi Hirahira works very well. It’s 1944 and Nisei protagonist Aki Ito and her family have just been released from Manzanar and sent to Chicago (the government doesn’t want Those People back in California). Aki’s adored older sister, Rose, went on ahead to set things up but by the time Aki and her parents arrive, Rose is dead. The police consider it a suicide, possibly linked to her getting an abortion.

Aki can’t believe it so she begins moving through the Japanese-American community in Chicago, and sometimes the white world, trying to find answers. The mystery works and didn’t play out as I expected, but the real pull is the setting. A world of Nisei and Issei (Japanese-born Americans) uprooted from their homes, needing work but having a hard time finding it, dealing with racism and wondering about their friends or family still in the camps or fighting in Europe with the 442nd Nisei. Hirahira knows her stuff — she collected oral histories of post-camp life for a nonfiction book — and it shows.

As it’s Halloween, rather than post a book cover, here’s an unrelated but spooky one by Joseph Eberle.#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.

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The pandemic from space: thoughts on reading “The Andromeda Strain”

THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN was the book that catapulted Michael Crichton on the best-seller lists, a science fiction novel for people who don’t read science fiction. As I’m including a discussion of the movie in Alien Visitors, I reread the novel for the first time, probably, since it came out.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the novel concerns a satellite gathering xenobacteria as possible bio-weapons. When it crashes to Earth in a small town of less than 70 people, the men who found it take it to the town doctor, who opens it. By the time the military two-man collection crew arrives, everyone’s dead. The two soldiers die too. Their alarmed CO triggers a Wildfire alert, a special protocol for dealing with extraterrestrial threats of this sort. A crew of four scientists assembles at the cutting-edge Wildfire lab to figure out what caused the deaths, and why two people — a baby and an aging wino — survived. And, of course, how to prevent whatever it is from spreading.

The novel, like much of Crichton’s later fiction, is insanely talky. He constantly info-dumps about the amazing technology, the computers, the biology of the Andromeda infestation, the methods of research. There’s almost no characterization to distinguish the four doctors (Stone, Leavitt, Hall and Dutton) other than Hall being single (significant to the plot). There are several little points where the book feels off: the assumption that Andromeda will grow if fed nuclear radiation seems to come out of nowhere; repeated assertions the team made small mistakes don’t apparently lead anywhere. Nevertheless, the book worked. It established Crichton on the A-list and he stayed there consistently for the rest of his long career (which led to movies including Jurassic Park and Westworld plus less successful films such as Rising Sun). I enjoyed it too, though I can’t remember my reactions in detail (if I’d loved it I’d probably have a much stronger memory of it).

Much as writers, editors and reviewers talk about “show don’t tell,” I’m not so sure readers give a crap. This book is very, very “tell” but obviously it didn’t hurt it. It probably helps that Crichton’s not telling about his characters love lives or careers but about interesting, extremely cool science and tech stuff. And in a situation where an extraterrestrial pandemic could break out at any second. It’s not a new thought but if you embed a lot of info-dumping into an intriguing story, it’s much easier to get away with, particularly if it’s interesting info-dumps (case in point, Airport). That it dealt with outer space didn’t hurt — the space race was one of the coolest things going on in the 1960s.

The movie still has a lot of telling but it moves smoother than the book. More important, it makes the scientists into individuals, enhanced by capable actors (director Robert Wise picked less well known actors, figuring it would help the realism). Stone (Arthur Hill) is the leader, a wealthy establishment guy. Judging from Dutton’s (David Wayne) home he’s much more middle-class and more liberal; his family are very upset he’s going to work for the “germ warfare people.” James Olson plays Hall as a smartass, a cynic and a bit of a womanizer. Kate Reid as Leavitt — in the book it’s a man — is tart-tongued and dour. In the book Leavitt avoids flashing red lights (they trigger his epilepsy) claiming they remind him of his ambulance work in WW II. In the movie Leavitt quips about working a brothel in the red light district.

On the whole, the movie is one of the rare ones that improves on the source novel.

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R’Lyeh vs. New York City: NK Jemisin’s “The City We Became.”

THE CITY WE BECAME by NK Jemisin opens with a hot-tempered street artist, homeless, black and gay. The avatar of the city of Så0 Paolo contacts him to explain he’s the avatar of New York City, which is now becoming sentient, and that the Enemy will object, so the avatar has to prepare for battle.

After the opening scene, we cut to an amnesiac, newly arrived in Manhattan, who winds up fighting off an incursion by a Lovecraftian horror; the amnesiac, it turns out is the avatar of Manhattan. A short while later, he and his new roommate are attacked by the Women in White, an avatar of the same horror. Only not physically — she pulls the trick of reporting them as men of color (and gay men no less) threatening her! The Enemy has more than one method of waging war.

In subsequent chapters we meet the avatars of Brooklyn (woman rapper turned politician), the Bronx (sixtysomething lesbian and street artist), Queens (Indian-American math whiz) and Staten Island (racist white woman who hates living with her abusive dad but can’t bring herself to face the imagined horrors of the rest of New York). The amnesiac is Manhattan. It turns out that because NYC is NYC, one avatar wasn’t enough; the different boroughs have their own manifestations, but if they can’t learn to work together and revive the initial avatar, they’re doomed. The Woman in White is the avatar of R’lyeh, and because human cities achieving sentience wreaks havoc in other dimensions, she’s determined New York’s new avatars must die Which would be extremely bad. As in Atlantis bad.

I read this as part of my ongoing research in response to that Southern Discomfort feedback, but it’s an excellent book in its own right. My only complaints are a)the Woman in White’s dialogue is sometimes creepy as hell (the early scene I mentioned) but other times it’s generic power-mad supervillain (we humans are nothing but amoebas compared to her!). And while I don’t dispute that New York is more multiple cities than a single one, I wonder if it’s that unique — would people from Sao Paolo roll their eyes at being told they can be represented by one avatar? Heck, even the part of the Florida Panhandle where I used to live sees plenty of differences between communities (Destin’s for rich snobs and retirees, DeFuniak Springs is for the rednecks, etc.). But those are minor quibbles.

Like Southern Discomfort this is very much a setting story. As you’ve probably gathered, it’s all about the Big Apple and what makes the Bronx the Bronx and Staten Island Staten Island, and the tensions within the communities. Braca, the Bronx avatar, has to deal with a bunch of smirking white male artists who deliberately troll her gallery with racist-themed art, then go online to rant about how they’re oppressed because Braca wouldn’t accept their work (leading the woman’s sidekick to describe them as “Cthulhu’s tentacled fuckbois.”).

It’s also interesting to see how Jemisin makes the opening compelling even when not a lot is happening. She still makes the scene tense because the avatar is tense. He’s sitting in a fancyrestaurant, conscious that he’s the only black man there, that everyone’s checking him out, that his clothes are threadbare. There’s a lot of internal monologue but Jemisin can even make that interesting.

Like Southern Discomfort this also has multiple narrators, though nowhere near as many as I go through.

Overall I don’t know that I learned anything useful, but it was a terrific book I’d have read anyway.

#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder; jacket art by arcangel

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