Saturday, June 20, 2009

Red and dead

Mars. Martians. Martian invaders. HG Wells. I re-read War of the Worlds for the story I am working on to refresh my memory about some details I wanted to use.

Alien tripod illustration by Alvim Corréa, fro...Image via Wikipedia

I was surprised at how much I'd forgotten. In particular I had no memory of the black smoke the martians used to clear towns and cities nor of the red weed that they used to choke the landscape. That was good to know because I want to make the destruction they wrought far more widespread. I think I can stretch things enough to make that work. Plus there's nothing to say that the Martians didn't come back. Chances are that, if they did, they'd be much better prepared. Or just really annoyed.

Can life survive without the microbes that the Martians lack? They do good things for us humans. In fact, I'm pretty sure that all life got started via the medium of such things. I guess Wells didn't know about that though. The classic Miller-Urey experiment on primordial soup wasn't done until 1953 and a lot of subsequent work has been done on the evolution of unicellular and multi-cellular organisms. The shift from uni (prokaryotes) to multi (eukaryotes) is a pretty pivotal moment in the history of life on Earth. Here's a thought - a good one for a story. What if in travelling to Mars we find no evidence of them evolving there. So they came from somewhere else.

Re-reading the book, which took about 3.5 commutes, also made me realise how faithful the Spielberg movie was. I was expecting that to be a story of plucky-humans-beating-the-martians-by-dint-of-their-unquenchable-spirit with Tom in the role of hero. But it was pretty bleak and Tom Cruise's character was not very likeable. I suspect part of the reason for the reviews saying it was mediocre were because it didn't submit to that Hollywood idealisation of struggle against the alien oppressors. Ooh, hark at him.

What struck me when I was looking into WotW was how many people have used it as a starting point for more stories. Lots of anthologies have been produced taking the invasion as their starting point. What is also interesting is what they did not consider. Well, almost all of them. Superstition forbids me from saying more.
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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Before they were famous

Number One in an occasional series.

So I thought I would take a look, when time and opportunity permit, to read and review the early stories of writers that I rate.

The Clash, Chateau Neuf, Oslo, Norway, May 21s...Image via Wikipedia

I think I'm doing to make myself feel better, in that I'll find that some of their early stuff was as bad as my stuff and therefore kid myself that my career, such as it is, resembles theirs enough to give me hope that I can make this work. I suspect I'll find it's a bit more complicated than that.

Justification over, I'll move on to the first choice which is "Fragments of a Hologram Rose" by William Gibson. Even before I read it, again, I found out two startling facts. First, it was published in 1977. When I was a mighty ten. And second that William Gibson is over 60 years old.

That 1977 publication date knocked me out. That's why, I guess, the punk label gets applied to stuff done in the same style because of the chronological suture with the proper punk. Hmm.

It was published in UnEarth 3. Which, I read, was a short-lived SF mag (1977-79) and he got paid $23 for it. Holy crap there is a copy available still to buy. How about that. It was edited by Jonathan Ostrowsky-Lantz and John M. Landsberg. JML wrote a few stories and a couple of novels and JOL didn't. This story knocked me out. Look for "What baggery is this?"

On to the story. Which is really short, about 2,000 words or so I'd guess. And its pretty damn good. Whole and polished. No stuttering lights here, just full beam all the way. Pretty much all the elements in later Gibson are there in the first instar. The neat technology, the astonishing attention to detail, and the human element too. It's all about the end of a relationship and the tech is used to underline just what is lost and how it all went wrong. Poignant too.

Some of the names that crop up in later Gibson works are there too - Sendai, in particular.

I bought a copy of Burning Chrome, the anthology, to get at Fragments and I've picked through a few of the stories. Most of which are good, some great and some, like the title work, out and out fab.

In the spirit of wanting to learn from reading I'll mention what I have spotted. And this builds on something I noticed last week. Details are important, essential even, to establishing that sense of place.

EssayImage by Martin Kingsley via Flickr

Though one passage, in New Rose Hotel, did make me snort it seemed so over the top. This is it

"He'd found a German girl with a taste for conservative loden and riding boots polished the shade of a fresh chestnut."

Fabulous. For reference loden is that houndstoothy, twilly cloth seen in traditional German costumes.

What I also picked up on though was their simplicity. The profundity of the stories comes from how straight-forward they are. They do not attempt to be clever before they are clear. I've often been accused of doing the opposite. Good lessons from Mr Gibson. He'll go far.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Drive, he said

You never know what you need to know until you get started on a story. Knowing it is essential too if you are to establish the right tone, setting and give a story the details that give

American TabloidImage by Pip via Flickr

it enough of an air of versimilitude.

Without details then stories have a habit of vanishing in a "something happened, someone did something, a thing happened in response and then something else happened. The End" kind of fog.

I have a feeling that the story I have just started working on is going to involve a lot of research for those salient details. Some of it is easy to find, such as the history of the US secret service, the number of US presidents that have been successfully assassinated (4) and there have been about 90 attempts to assassinate presidents. Richard Paul Pavlick threatened JFK in 1960.

Trickier though are the lifestyle questions. In particular, what make of car did federal agents drive in the 1950s and 60s? I thought it might be a Packard of some kind but they all look too old. I did an image search and thought I had found the perfect one, a Packard coupe Opera, but it turned out to be from 1925 and was seen in the TinTin stories. So, not that one then.

It's proving hard to find out. Maybe a Plymouth. It was one of the bigger car makers, had an eye for style and it has to be said that the Special De Luxe Coupe and f-door sedan h

1931 Ford CoupeImage by MyBarina via Flickr

ave the look I'm aiming for even if they are not exactly the right ones.

Ooh, this site has lots of good pictures that might help. It might even be a five-window Dodge, thgouh that did come out a bit early for the purposes of the story. What I have in my mind is a great sweeping rear of a car and the snub nose front. It'll has to have four doors too if the opening scene is going to work.

It occurred to me that it was probably Ford that had the US government contract back then to supply cars so I had a look on the same site and came across the standard coupe. There's no doubt that the Ford's have that distinctive snout on them. So maybe that's what I need to use. The Ford Coupe or the Super Deluxe. Most of them look like they only have two doors though, which could be a problem. Only a minor one, the MC could get in the front. The coupe has it. Thank you internet for sorting that problem.
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