Sunday, February 26, 2012

Seven Minutes to Bangor

Stupefying Stories recently published my short story Seven Minutes to Bangor, and I’ve had a few people ask my about it in the past, so I thought I’d give some background for it here. If you have been living without the joys of this story, it’s in the December 2011 issue.
I’m a big fan of the modern holiday of Christmas. As invented in the late 19th and early 20th century, it’s pretty cool. Stripped of all religious meaning, it has become a winter festival of color and light, pushing aside the deary weather and isolation so many dread during the coldest months. It’s got family gatherings, presents, and lots of bric-a-brac. The practical traditions, such as decking out your house with difficult and often dangerous-to-install lights, fragrant and messy wreaths, and tactically-placed mistletoe make it unique in other ways. Just seeing the trappings of this holiday evokes strong memories, even among those who have never celebrated it directly, like me.
But the best thing about it is how completely nonsensical the mythology surrounding it is. It’s unabashed fantasy. A jolly fat man rides in a flying sleight pulled by twelve giant arctic deer, who also fly. He delivers toys to the world’s children*, in a single night. These toys are constructed and assembled at the north pole. By elves.
Yeah, freakin’ elves. Awesome.
How can this be improved upon? Well, I love the adventurous style of this holiday story. It’s got a kinetic frenzy completely lacking in every other holiday. If you think about it, what other celebration is kicked off by such a mythic worldwide race against the clock?
Seven Minutes just looks at what might go into the actual execution of such an absurd event. Who is the man at the center of this whole thing? How can he do so much in one night? And what’s the deal with those elves?
I wrote this years ago, in a writing group I started with some friends in Chicago, and then let it simmer for a while. Santa Clause wasn’t going anywhere, I reasoned, and I couldn’t seem to find the right platform to submit it until I started working with Stupefying. Also, the story came pre-dated, as the whole affair was powered by super technology that would never exist laid over a foundation of the antiquated and the obsolete.
I’m not one to include popular references in my writing, and Seven Minutes is one of the only times I’ve done so. This sort of thing never ages well. But I include a lot of small detail that make the story feel like it takes place somewhere in the early nineties. In the end it won’t matter much, since the story is, of course, about a guy delivering presents made by elves and flying deer. And those never go out of style.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Often unable to save face

Recently, I saw a movie called (uncleverly) Faces in the Crowd, in which a woman takes brain damage as a result of a fall. Brain damage is, as a storytelling device, loads of fun. It allows writers to examine our normal lives through the lens of impairment. In this case, she develops a marked case of prosopagnosia.

Prosopagnosia is commonly called “face blindness”, and there are many levels of the disorder, most of them accessible through brain trauma. Sufferers display varying levels of difficulty in facial recognition. In severe cases, the person may be unable to recognize anyone, even themselves, and must continually fall back on other cues as to who people are.In the movie, of course, the damage was taken while evading a serial killer (what else could it have been?).

So the killer plays a rather unimaginative game of cat and mouse with the protagonist, knowing that she’ll never be able to recognize him later on. In the movie, the prosopagnosia is shown by having multiple actors play each character, with changes of actor coming whenever the character’s face goes out of view.The actors were all similar, of course, but the idea was to make the viewer vaguely uncomfortable, by defeating their natural recognition by continually changing the character’s features.I, however, just barely noticed, and usually didn’t see the transitions at all

.I have prosopagnosia, you see. So the movie didn’t work for me. Sigh, Yet another theatrical masterpiece, spoiled by neurological deficiencies!

I’ve only become aware of this in recent years. I have a lifetime’s irritating habit of monitoring the way my mind works (this goes way, way beyond introspection), and have always known I was bad at recognizing faces. I have memories of saying this exact thing to people at nearly every age.

“I’m really bad at names and faces,” I hear myself say, over and over, “so if I don’t recognize you next time, don’t get mad, or anything.”

“Oh, I’m no good at that either,” was the usual response. But my no good was at a whole other level than theirs, I was almost certain. And I must have been mostly right, because I can’t count the number of times I’ve have strangers walk up to me and greet me by name.

“Hey!” I’d gush, feigning pleasure at seeing them. “How’s it going?” This gambit to learn something that might jog my memory as to who this person might be is pretty weak, since most people just give you a placeholder answer, rather than a fact.

I used to think my poor skill at remembering faces was sort of ironic, given my lifelong interest in portraiture, and drawing people. But recently I’ve begun to wonder if my striving for technical skill in this area isn’t some sort of coping mechanism, a new set of hooks to hang my visual impression on, a way to categorize features so that I might be better at recalling the face as a whole. And perhaps this has worked. Who can say how bad I would be at this if I didn’t have this habit to fall back on?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

First Impressions

November saw the publication of my short story First Impressions in the magazine Stupefying Stories. I've been asked about it by a few people, so here goes some navel-gazing about it.

There are spoilers, though, so if you haven't read it, don't read this blog post about it first. Go buy it! No, really.

First off, this is the first SF story I've ever written that has aliens in it. Yep, I don't do aliens, since people are strange enough. But the entire point behind this story is how aliens are treated by most SF: as surrogates for specific human cultural traits or viewpoints.

I've only read a few pieces that actual make aliens seem alien. Usually, I sort of nod my head, and say, "Yep, those are the samurai. Oh, those are Soviet." or whatever. So many writers crib human cultures its almost hard to remember that it can be any other way. Most attempts to get inside an alien's head reverts to merely examining in painful detail human foibles. Star Trek has this approach down to a science. And most attempts to avoid these pitfalls create painfully awkward and self-conscious writing.

The core idea of First Impressions was to take these traits and run with them. The aliens in the story are completely human, mentally, with only superficial differences. They look like the classic grays, which was my unwritten signal that this was about our collective cultural memes regarding aliens, and not aliens themselves.

The protagonist, Darrel, being primed to meet aliens, is basically taken for a ride by prankish children, who abuse him physically and mentally in a sort of light-hearted game to see who can outdo the other with outrageous acts and still stay in the alien persona they've adopted. The Eisenhower-era characterization of their mother is a nod to the Golden Age of SF, where Cold War sensibilities rule in the far future.

The final entrance of yet another alien, whose thought exactly mimic Darrel's just drive home the point: these aliens are just human minds in other bodies.