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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

And the winner is...

...being announced much too late. Sorry about that; we got overrun by a stampede of dinosaurs here, followed by a succession of train wrecks and then an earthquake. Otogu must be most displeased with us this week.

Diving right in then:

Ben-El: "As I Die Laying"
What can I say? This story just cracked me up, again and again, from the opening paragraphs to the moment when that terrible delayed-action pun of a title finally detonated. I've been cornered at parties by way too many Arts, all babbling with great sincerity and passion about the most insane things, and I think I probably would have gone a little further outside of him and spent more time describing him as the others see him, from the barbecue sauce spots on his shirt right down to the rundown heels of his smelly Converse Chuck Taylor's. As for the baseball cap (for which team?), when Mike says, "Shouldn't that be made of tinfoil?", I think that rather than admit that it is tinfoil-lined, it would be better if Art almost got sidetracked off into an explanation of why tinfoil isn't nearly dense enough to provide adequate shielding—say, using something along these lines—and then had to recover.

The dialogue between the Liberal and the Conservative is great, but would benefit from being sharpened. Cathy is kind of a nullity until the end, and given her prominence then, she probably should have more to say earlier. (Why, when I envision her, do I see certain empty-headed t-shirt-wearing women I've met at past parties? For example, that one in Chattanooga who was wearing the t-shirt that said, "I'm only here to get drunk and get laid.") Jack, Mike, and Cathy all would benefit from a little more physical description and about a ten-percent reduction in dialogue. The whole thing needs at least one more good rewrite for tightening purposes.

But the anagrams just crack me up. The complete daffy lunacy of Art's theory cracks me up. Thanks for sparing me the ending I thought you were leading up to, which was Art waking up in the middle of the night to find Cathy in the bathroom, whispering into her compact. "He knows too much. We'll have to kill him." (Do women even carry compacts any more?)

I liked the first ending a lot. The second ending was better, or would be, with another rewrite or two to better integrate it. I don't know if this one could ever be publishable, but that is another question entirely, and a topic for another time. But even as it stands now, in first-draft form: I love it. It cracks me up.

Al: "The Nightmare Begins"
This one almost works for me. The writing is first-rate. You really jump right into the story; you kickstart it with a steel-toed boot, jam it into gear, and take off laying down rubber and never slowing down until the very end. You give us all the backstory we need without breaking the pace.

The problem is, this isn't a story, it's a first chapter. Maybe it's a moral failing on my part; maybe it's just that too many of these things were written in the 1950s—and then again in the 1970s—but I've gotten really tired of the whole paranoid/survivalist hiding-out-from-the-end-of-the-world trope. I guess I really just plain don't much like characters whose entire philosophy can be cooked down to, "I warned you once and you didn't listen to me, so screw you."

Maybe it's just that I wrote too many of those sorts of characters myself, back in the 1970s and early 1980s.

That, and I've always wondered why, if the sigma character has figured out the Great Evil Conspiracy and is running scared and paranoid from Everyone Who Is Out To Get Him, he (and it's always he) is always so willing to accept the situation when he finally runs into other people who have also figured out the conspiracy, and who are there to provide him with a convenient deus ex militia and all the things he regrettably was unable to pack when he first went on the run. (E.g., toothbrush, clean underwear, food, a place to hide, succinct and nearly omniscient exposition, false identity papers, weapons, a small army of selfless supporting actors, a smart-mouthed but ultimately totally hot and loyal girlfriend... See, oh, The Running Man, Total Recall, or most Bond films.) I mean, wouldn't a sufficiently thoughtful Great Evil Conspiracy plant such people, simply as a backup plan, in case their secrecy wasn't airtight and they failed to get the one guy who stumbled onto the truth?

And while we're at it: what's the job description, anyway? When the Evil Mastermind is hiring, is one of the interview questions: "Okay, suppose that somehow—unbelievable as it might seem—one stubborn person has learned the truth about our G.E.C. and is determined to escape and warn the whole world. Do you have any experience with directing thuggish and incompetent henchmen and running an ad hoc chase-and-capture operation?"

Anyway: in sum, this is a good, strong, first chapter, but it's not a story. I'd like to see how you'd develop this one. A character who runs and hides from evil is realistic, but not interesting. A character who resists is. He can be tragic; he can fail; but for God's sake have him go down fighting. Don't make him hopeless.

Arisia: "Alien Slave"
I'm still ruminating over this one. (No, wait, Henry ruminates. I need a different signature metaphor.)

The writing is superb, in an entirely different way than Al's is. It's wistful, dreamy; a disturbing and random walk through some fog-shrouded interior landscape. Watch out for the parentheticals, though. There's at least one too many of them, and they're jarring. (Have you ever experienced a rotten tomato? They really stink!) I really like the way you approach the central topic. Is Cynthia simply nuts, or is she actually onto something?

The ending...

Well, that's a problem. She's facing a terrible dilemma, but in the end she's Raptured out of having to make a choice. This is probably why overtly Christian endings generally don't work so well in most of the commercial market. I mean, how can you argue with Christ? How can you ask God to explain Himself? The answer just is, the end.

This is why it's called a deus ex machina ending, and it's been a problem since Sophocles was writing plays. Greek theaters had trapdoors and pulley mechanisms and the like. Deus ex machina literally means "god on a machine," and it was the sloppy playwright's way to wrap up a story. You've set up a terrible dilemma, put your characters in an impossible situation—and then BAM!, a god drops down from the rafters or pops up through a trapdoor, to resolve everything with a divine miracle or an omniscient explanation. The end.

So, getting back to "Alien Slave:" in the end, I'm disappointed. You've set up an interesting, if terribly, depressing situation. But rather than finding any solution within herself, Cynthia ends up being swept away by events beyond human comprehension. It may make good theology, but as a story, it simply collapses.

But given the theological nature of the ending, it also makes this one really difficult to comment on or criticize.

Torainfor: "Unity"
And now, having written so much on the other three entries, I'm afraid I must disappoint you by saying, "It's perfect. Don't change a thing. Take it off your blog and try to shop it around now."

Yeah, I have a certain innate resistance to stories that end with the G.E.C. winning, but that objection ignores the realities of Mat's (only one "t"?) situation. He is a dependent child, if a teenager. His parents have been coopted by the G.E.C., as has his doctor, and apparently almost everyone else. This is primal nightmare stuff, and you spin the web that ensnares Mat very, very well indeed.

And here you were two weeks ago, saying you didn't and couldn't write horror. Surprise! You just did! And it's great!

Anyway, that's all I have to say about this one, except to announce that as you might expect, "Unity" is this week's winner. So Torainfor, come on down and claim your prize!

On third thought, since I've made everyone wait so long: in order to bribe reward you for your patience, I'm going to declare this another "Everyone's a winner!" week and give prizes to everyone who entered. However, you might also want to wait until Saturday to claim it, as I've got two more boxes full of books sitting here waiting to be added to the Door #3 list.

Hey. It's a mutually beneficial exchange. You get free books, and I recover some valuable and desperately needed office space.
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