Reader’s Corner: ‘The City in the Middle of the Night’

My review of Charlie Jane Anders’ novel The City in the Middle of the Night was published at Rain Taxi Review of Books:

The City in the Middle of the Night, is precisely the kind of novel that benefits from being called speculative fiction rather than science fiction, which can still seem pejorative to some readers. So far, “speculative fiction” seems not to scare off genre-unfriendly readers, meaning Anders may attract the kind of broad readership she deserves with this bristling and vivid book…

Writer’s Desk: Let Your Characters Talk

Occasionally some notable literary discussions take place in less-notable places. Take, for one example, the MidAmeriCon, 34th World Science Fiction Convention, which took place over a few days in 1976 at the (historic) Muehlebach Hotel in downtown Kansas City. There, the great science-fiction author Alfred Bester (The Demolished Man, The Stars My Destination) was doing the sci-fi-con circuit that kept the genre afloat and buzzing in those pre-Internet days.

Bester took some time to talk to an eager fan for the noted genre magazine The Tangent about writing:

You know, Robert [Heinlein] said to me once—we were talking shop, writing techniques and stuff like that—and Robert said I’ll tell you what I do, Al. What I do is get a bunch of characters together and I get them into difficulties, and by the time I can hear them talk they’ve solved their difficulties and I’m finished.

I was absolutely flabbergasted! I can’t even start a story until I can hear my characters talking. I’ve got to know who they are, what they are…I’ve got to identify with them completely…

“I’ll tell you what to do Al…”

It’s likely that more writers are like Heinlein than Bester. For some of us, characters are stubborn things. If you waited around for them to talk, you might never get anything written.

TV Room: ‘Altered Carbon’

Richard K. Morgan’s cyberpunk noir novels posited a future world where death is mostly a thing of the past. Everyone’s mind can be downloaded into a surgically implanted “stack” which at the point of death can then be “resleeved” into a new body of whatever gender or race one prefers. It’s a fascinating concept that Morgan mined for a hardboiled capitalist critique but is worked out for mostly action-junkie hijinks in the derivative 10-part streaming adaptation of Altered Carbon, the first novel in the series.

Altered Carbon premieres on Netflix February 2. My review is at The Playlist.

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’

Since it’s almost Christmas, that must mean time for a new Star Wars movie. The latest one is directed by Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) and features a grab-bag of characters newer (Poe, Rey) and older (Luke, Leia, Chewie), plus the odd adorable critter (see above).

My article on The Last Jedi and the whole dang Star Wars universe is over at The Playlist:

Back when George Lucas was that oddball car enthusiast and confederate of Francis Ford Coppola’s with two of the greatest and weirdest movies of the 1970s under his belt — “THX 1138” and “American Graffiti” — he really wanted to make a movie out of “Flash Gordon.” But that didn’t work out, so he moved on to cranking out his own rollicking space opera. Forty years after the first “Star Wars” movie, Lucas’s rag-and-bone shop of cribs from Kurosawa, John Ford, and Joseph Campbell has now turned into its own self-perpetuating universe with an annual haul that probably beats the GDP of some small nations. The latest installment, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” looks likely to keep that cycle going for the foreseeable future…

Screening Room: ‘Downsizing’

In Alexander Payne’s new comedy, Downsizing, Matt Damon plays a guy who takes advantage of new technology that shrinks people in order to offset their negative impact on the environment; also, leads to a life of luxury that is not as enjoyable as he initially thinks.

Downsizing opens next Friday. My review is at PopMatters:

No, being the size of a dog’s chew toy might not be to everybody’s taste, but it’s certainly a shortcut to a kind of upper middle-class luxury unobtainable for most of humanity. Around $150k in real-world money translates into $12.5 million in the little planned communities of the downsized. That buys a lot of McMansion. As the indelibly happy Dave (Jason Sudeikis) crows to occupational therapist Paul (Matt Damon), “Cheesecake Factory? We’ve got three of ’em!”…

Writer’s Desk: See the Future

There’s a lot of would-be science-fiction writers out there, but it’s a crowded market and not enough buyers.

For those who like imagining future scenarios but don’t always have the best publication to place them in, there’s possibilities with a firm called SciFutures. According to this New Yorker profile, the company uses a network of a hundred or so writers (including Ken Liu of the Hugo Award-winning The Three-Body Problem) to craft customized stories for corporate clients, known as “corporate visioning”:

A company that monetizes literary imagination might itself seem like a dystopian scenario worthy of Philip K. Dick. “There can be a little tension,” Trina Phillips, a full-time writer and editor at SciFutures, acknowledged … She and [founder Ari] Popper have found that clients generally prefer happy endings, though unhappy ones are permissible if the author also proposes a clear business strategy for avoiding them. Rarely is there room for off-topic subplots or tangential characters. Phillips mentioned one story that initially featured a kangaroo running amok in a major North American city. The client, a carmaker, asked that the marsupial be removed.

More interestingly, some of their clients include the military, who is always looking for new ways to confront threats they haven’t conceived yet.

That’s where the writers come in.

Screening Room: ‘Ghost in the Shell’

The Scarlett Johansson live-action remake of the classic 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell hit DVD and Blu-ray this week. My review is at PopMatters:

For a movie ostensibly about uniqueness and what makes us human, Ghost in the Shell doesn’t make a strong argument for either. This is a story in which the technology fascinates and the people bore. Sense memories of other movies proliferate until you forget quite what it was you were watching in the first place. That’s the sort of thing bound to happen when the star (Scarlett Johansson) is playing a role she can sleepwalk through and the story was only groundbreaking when first filmed over 20 years ago…

Here’s the trailer: