Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer (NetGalley review). Visionary Weirdness.

I suspect that a great many readers will not appreciate the dense language and the non-linear structure a this loose prequel to Borne. Borne, for all of its hallucinogenic qualities, has a fairly straight forward plot that could be turned into a film, albeit one by Jodorowsky. Dead Astronauts, though, revels in its textuality. It can’t be filmed. Though it’s an ecological science fiction novel that plays with theoretical concepts like Time Travel and parallel Earths, it operates with dream logic. Vandermeer plays games with typography (though not in a House of Leaves way; it’s more like the beginning of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye with its use of repetition and claustrophobic line spacing) that underscore the surrealistic nature of book. The novel—prose poem?— is closer tone to Delany’s DHALGREN or even Lautremont’s Le Chants de Maldoror. This kind of visionary writing—full of beautiful nightmarish imagery—is one of my favorite forms of fiction. I hope it finds the right audience. 

My review of Von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA: depression is a glowing blue planet

{Below is the text of the spoken review}

I want to like the films of Lars Von Trier more than I do. I admire that he has a singular vision, and that he has the audacity to disturb his audience. His work is difficult and he explores the darkest reaches of the human experience. But there is always something about his work that irritates me, that stops me from fully embracing his work.

I saw MELANCHOLIA last night. It’s an intensely personal meditation on Depression and self destruction. Justine’s descent into a depression is beautifully realized, and I would tell anyone who doesn’t believe Depression is a genuine medical condition to look at the first part of the film. The actress Kirsten Dunst portrays Justine’s pain as physical (which Depression can be) as well as mental. Her face mimics joy, but she’s really a husk inside, a tangle of psychic scars. The second part of the movie, about the destruction of the earth, isn’t as strong. Firstly, because the narrative shifts its focus from Justine to her sister Claire. The scenes that show Justine’s reactions are more powerful. She seems to embrace the end of the world. There’s a scene where she bathes naked in the spectral blue glow of the planet Melancholia that is just gorgeous.

The second part of the movie also has all of the features that annoy me about Von Trier’s work. His characters act in ways that don’t make sense. When Kiefer Sutherland’s character kills himself, it comes out of left-field. This sudden out of character behavior is a hallmark of his films. In DANCER IN THE DARK, Selma murders a man—out of left field. In DOGVILLE, Nicole Kidman’s character goes from being unbelievably passive (getting raped by an entire village!!!!) to committing genocide. The writer in me sees that as lazy, if not bad writing. Mood whiplash is one thing. Character arc whiplash is another.

To me, MELANCHOLIA is half of a masterpiece. He should really hire a script doctor (me!) for his next outing.


On “Wool” by Hugh Howey—and how to avoid alienating readers.

I finished reading Hugh Howey’s novel/series Wool, after reading the hype surrounding the book. The author has been considered something of a golden boy, a success story from the story mines of self-publishing. There is much to admire about the book. The first four sections are extended character studies that move the story forward while leisurely exploring the dystopian/post-apocalyptic worldscape of underground warrens, Ruined Earth and complex secrets. The major characters are older—an old sheriff, an aging mayor—and there are female characters that don’t strictly adhere to action-girl badass/ Mary Sue tropes, which is refreshingly adult. I tweeted about it, and called it a kind of an adult Hunger Games. Derivative of 70s style dystotian fiction (I.e., Logan’s Run, Soylvent Green), Wool managed to breathe life into stale scenarios. The last section of the book picks up speed, and the pace keeps the pages (or page-swipes) turning.
There are some problems, with the book. For instance, some of the world building has logic holes, and like (too) many SF books there is a homogenization of the cast. (No noticeable people of color in the future, eh? And LGBT are invisible or non-existent?) But it’s a promising effort, nevertheless.

Just as I finished the book, Howey’s infamous and unfortunate sexist post hit the twitterverse. A brief rehash—Howey had an encounter with an unpleasant person and in cutting the person down, used gendered insults—referring to the person’s looks and ending with a crude, dude-bro cri de couer.  This misstep didn’t stop me from enjoying the novel. It didn’t anger me. It disappointed me. This is what the situation reminds me of, what I call in shorthand, the Anne Coulter Question.

Anne Coulter is simply the worst—part Atalanta, throwing apples of discord in politics, part living Id of far rightwing ethos. But when people comment on Coulter’s looks, and in particular, the often repeated claim that she might possibly be trans, I think it’s worse. There are so many wonderful ways—as writers, even—that we can put down unpleasant people. As writers of the imagination, with new and novel ways to pinpoint disagreeable people and their beliefs. It is supremely disappointing and, frankly cheap, when we resort to terms like bitch or that’s so gay or I bet she has a dick.
I do recommend the book and look forward to what Howey the fiction-writer brings to the table in future works. I just hope he doesn’t disappoint again with ill-advised blog posts. Don’t alienate your readers.