Saturday, April 5, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier / Some thoughts on Retro-Futuristic Cyberpunk & Characters Sticking to Their Alignments

I'd give it three and a half stars, and I'll explain why, but what I really want to do is talk about a few aspects of the movie beyond just reviewing it. So here's my quick and dirty review:

I went to this movie hoping there was some way that it would be a dieselpunk movie like Captain America: The First Avenger. I always avoid all trailers of movies I intend to see because I cannot abide having any part of a movie spoiled for me. The downside of this is that sometimes I go into a movie with expectations which are not met. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not a dieselpunk movie. So in that, I was disappointed. This was exacerbated by the fact that two of my husband's students told him the movie dealt with the World's Fair. There's an explanation for this; the short version is they were probably pranking him. He teaches history and uses The First Avenger as a way to address the World's Fairs and a lot of other aspects of history in the early 20th century. Anyway, so I went into this movie thinking they were going to have some kind of time travel happen or something. Nothing like that happens. The closest thing to dieselpunk is a scene in a bunker (?). It isn't dieselpunk in any way, though, it's actually a strange type of cyberpunk, and I'm going to talk about that in detail below. So really, this is a pretty basic action flick. It's biggest redeeming quality is the general morality of the story as well as the morality of the lead character, Steve Rogers, AKA Captain America. (Minor) SPOILER ALERT: When he talks to Nick Fury after getting a tour of a top secret operation, I had a hell yeah moment. At the start of the tour the camera lovingly reveals these huge weapons one after another. I know I come to this kind of movie with a different sort of mindset than most people do, so I had this icky feeling as I thought, "Yetch, are we supposed to be happy about this?" And then, basically, no, we're not. Rogers utters every objection that was going through my mind when I saw the big guns. So that was cool. (Much bigger) SPOILER ALERT: When Rodgers insists on dismantling SHIELD entirely, it was another hell yeah moment for me. I appreciated his unwillingness to compromise and I enjoyed how contrite Fury seemed in that moment. I also liked the interactions with Bucky. The film wasn't terribly rich in deeper emotional connections (it wasn't devoid of them, but let's face it, this is not a movie about feelings) so I liked how they worked with this one.

Anyway, there are two aspects I wanted to get into in more detail, and if you're worried about spoilers, and you've still managed to get this far, you really might want to stop reading now.

Retro-Futuristic Cyberpunk
This was a new one to me. Of course, I don't read cyberpunk or seek out cyberpunk fiction in any form, really, mostly because with the one novel I read, Mona Lisa Overdrive, I understood maybe a third of what I was reading. However, I understood enough of it to immediately recognize that Zola in the computers was like a big Gibson shout-out. The thing about it that struck me, though, was that these were what, 1960s computers? Maybe 1970s? They put me in mind of computers from old episodes of Wonder Woman so maybe 70s. Anyway, my point is that the scene was retro-futuristic. You have the retro-computers--huge ugly beasts that they are. But the tech is futuristic, what with Zola having downloaded his consciousness into them and all. As I understand it--and again, I am not a cyberpunk expert--one of the big differences between cyberpunk and all its derivative other-punks (those that I've encountered, anyway) is that cyberpunk is not retro-futuristic. It's just futuristic. By its nature, cyberpunk fiction is set in a near future, most often dystopian, where computers rule.

I haven't read the comics so I can't speak to the origin of this idea of combining a ghost in the machine with retro computers. If the movie makers came up with it, I'm impressed.

Checking the main page for "Cyber Punk" on TVTropes makes me think that that character of the Winter Soldier is also grounded in this aesthetic. There's an illustration on that page of a guy who could be the Winter Soldier himself, just with a shorter hair cut. On top of the physical similarities, the caption reads, "I never asked for this," which also fits.

Anyway, I thought the most interesting moment in the movie was the scene with cyber-Zola, and it was frustrating to me when the bunker was subsequently destroyed. Please, correct me if I'm wrong, but it looked to me like they did something new there, blending retro-futuristic with cyberpunk. I am such a sucker for retro-futuristic stuff, I got pretty excited about it. I'm going to have to give it some more thought, because that scene was just too short for me. I may have to come up with a way to do retro-futuristic cyberpunk in a novel. Maybe the third book in the City series.

Paladins, Ronin, and Alignment Shifts
Okay, so here's where I really fly my nerd flag, folks. If you've read my bio you may have caught the bit about how I played D&D for a while back when I lived in San Diego. It's actually not entirely accurate to say I played D&D. I did play some games set in worlds the D&D folks created, but I also played games and ran games set in worlds I created, and for several years tabletop RPG was a big part of my life (I miss it a lot). All this to say that I still see much of the fiction I encounter through the lens of D20 rules. It helps make me feel better when, say, a villain survives being pulverized when a huge flying helicarrier (I may be mistaken as to that term) crashes into the building he's in pretty much exactly at the level of the floor he's on. I think to myself, he's just that high level. His hit points are just that high. And I can go with it.

Another way I often wear RPG goggles when approaching fiction is with the nine alignments. In case you are unfamiliar with this concept, the short and dirty version is that all characters in D20 RPG, at least back when I was playing it, could be sorted on two spectrums. One was law versus chaos, the other was good versus evil. Here's a graphic:
I don't really agree with some of these choices for each category, but that's not the point here.

I've heard that the latest version of D&D does away with this system and has only five (?) alignments. This is unfathomable to me. I will not budge on this. The system of nine is the only way that will ever make sense to me, and even it has its limitations. ANYWAY. I've written three paragraphs here and I haven't even begun to get to the point. Yeesh.

Captain America, as you can see in the graphic, is Lawful Good. Unlike some of the choices in this graphic, he's really a great example of LG, because he's both genuinely good, and genuinely lawful. In Marvel's The Avengers he's actually fairly annoying about this. When I was watching The Winter Soldier and feeling disappointed about it not being a dieselpunk story, I realized something. I do like Rogers and his morality is a big part of that. But what made The First Avenger fun for me was the dieselpunk stuff. As a main character, Rogers just isn't a lot of fun. Not like, say, Tony Stark. Chaotic Good is just way more fun than Lawful Good. That's why there are so many stories about the rogue cop and the loose cannon and all the mavericks out there who shake things up and break all the rules in order to win the day.

Anyhoo, that's not my point. My point is that I think the biggest flaw in this movie is that Captain America doesn't stay true to his alignment.

Captain America is essentially a paladin. A paladin is your quintessential knight in shining armor. When you're a paladin, you are a warrior with a higher calling. Serving whoever or whatever it is you serve is your only aim in life. You are Lawful Good and you believe in order and hierarchy and following orders. Now, it is possible for a paladin to break with his or her faith or order or whatever, but this is a cataclysmic event in a the paladin's life. We're talking big angst here, and most likely an alignment shift, which is rare to impossible to achieve in a game, if you're playing with people who take their gaming seriously. Some paladins who go through this become evil, known as blackguards. Some become independent somehow. To be honest I don't remember how this works exactly. I have this vague memory of a paladin with a big red X over the arms on his shield and this wisp of an idea that suggests this was a character who broke with his faith for some reason but somehow managed to remain a kind of good paladin. Of course, in a fantasy setting based on feudal Japan, this would play out as a samurai who left the service of his lord and became a ronin.

In The Winter Soldier, Rogers goes from LG paladin to NG ronin* with nary a blink of a eye. I mean that almost literally. Chris Evans plays Rogers with such restraint that it's a good thing the camera can do close ups on his eyes, or we'd think he was totally wooden. I had to really puzzle over what moment constitutes the crisis point that causes Rogers to break with SHIELD. I think it's when Fury gets shot in Rogers' apartment. And honestly all the hinting about wanting to give up his service to SHIELD before that was really weird to me. I can see him disagreeing with Fury and having moral problems with the way they do things, but it doesn't add up to an LG paladin giving up his service. A Lawful Good character, even without actually being a paladin, would seek to remedy the problems of the organization from within, using the existing structure. They would not think going solo was the answer.

So that's really too bad, because the movie doesn't really work for me as a result. And you can't just forget that Rogers is LG because he does remind you of it several times throughout the movie, claiming he won't push someone off a building and that he's always honest. Basically he's forced into abandoning SHIELD when Fury gets shot, but then there's really no fallout for Rogers from having to do that. A well-written LG character, particularly a paladin like Rogers, would be pretty shattered by such a crisis. But this is a movie, with time limitations, as well as limitations on what the target audience is willing to put up with. I gather most people watching Captain America are going to think it's already angsty enough, what with the rather sad scene involving Peggy Carter as an elderly woman with Alzheimer's. They won't be entertained by Steve Rogers having a truly shattering existential crisis.

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*Yes, I am aware of how problematic it is to appropriate words from actual Japanese feudal history to describe a fantasy character... give me an alternative and I'll edit this page. It can't be "rogue" though because in RPG terms, that's an entirely different thing, and since this whole section is rooted in RPG stuff, I can't start confusing things.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Draft 1 Done!!! Yay!!!

After several months of dragging and not writing and all that jazz, I have finished the first draft of the sequel to The City Darkens. I have some revisions to do already, and I haven't yet heard back from my beta reader, of course. But a first draft is a first draft, so, Huzzah!

The title looks like it's going to be The City Smolders. One thing I did which was a bit of a gamble is the narrator is a new character, not Myadar. I really like Ginna, though, and it's been a bit of a wild ride with her, as I mentioned in a previous post, as she's the kind of character to take the reigns and go her own way.

Another fun and challenging aspect has been the dialect I've given Ginna. I've taken bits and pieces of English dialects so it resembles many but represents none. My main task has been to be consistent, which hasn't always been easy. One of the goals of the revision process is going to be to make sure the dialect is consistent.

I'll be interest to see the response of my beta reader (and I may see if another person who beta'ed The City Darkens wants to take a crack at this one too) to the book in general and the ending in particular. I won't say more about it than that for now. :)

Monday, February 17, 2014

The New Description for THE CITY DARKENS

Well, as I mentioned, I have spent a chunk of time reworking the description of The City Darkens. I got a lot of help from my good friend Kathryn, as well as the awesome folks over at AbsoluteWrite. After pulling out most of my hair as I struggled to string coherent sentences together, here is the new description:

In an island metropolis, where robots serve the wealthy and glittering skyscrapers light up the night, a woman from a country estate, unschooled in the ways of the court, fights to get back her son and resist the tyrannical new order.

After Myadar Solboi's efforts to navigate the perils of the court lead to betrayal, she becomes an urban incarnation of a legendary highwayman, pursuing revenge on those who wronged her as well as on the capital itself. The city's underclass stirs in response, but before she can rouse them to revolution, she falls into a peril she cannot escape.

This twisting tale of the struggle against the birth of a new, violent age is dystopian decopunk inspired by a 1920s aesthetic. A world of fanatical rulers, ambitious priests, seductive courtiers, shining robots, and a nearly forgotten people living under the city in the sewers... all seen through the shocked eyes of a determined heroine.



That last paragraph may seem like it's all tell and no show; I decided to include it to state my novel's genre in the clearest terms I could come up with, after running into several people who had never heard of dieselpunk, much less dystopian decopunk. Which is a genre I have just coined. I expect all future writers of dystopian decopunk to pay me royalties for coining it, by the way.

What with the new description giving away that Myadar goes all Robin Hood (sort of) I think my cover doesn't quite fit as well. I'd asked the artist, Dolly G, to have Myadar holding this red piece of cloth, so that when people read about Myadar's red silk mask, they'd go, "Oh! That's what she's holding on the cover!" Dolly did a wonderful job, and she really listened to me, so I am grateful to have worked with her. It's just that since the whole mask piece of the story isn't a surprise anymore (can you tell I'm conflicted about this?) it seems like the cover ought to highlight the action aspect more. Hence, I covet a cover (that's fun to say out loud) by Benjamin Carré. Here's one of his works, from his website:

This is the cover to Tim Aker's The Horns of Ruin. I haven't read it, though it's on my ever increasing to-read pile.

I've written Carré twice and he hasn't got back to me. There's an immense chance I couldn't even dream of affording him, but I just wish I could know for sure. Sigh.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

My Art Deco City CAN Have Robots: Why Dieselpunk is Obscure & May Stay That Way

So after I wrote the last post about working with the kind folks on AbsoluteWrite to improve my blurb, I thought I might take another crack at defining, or at least discussing, dieselpunk. After all, a frightening number of people on AW--these are generally avid readers in addition to being writers, you understand--had no idea what dieselpunk was and several objected to my combining robots with an art deco style city. Some also found it hard to grasp how robots and modern tech could have any place in fantasy (as opposed to sci fi, I presume). It was clearly a counter-intuitive combination of elements for them.

I googled dieselpunk and what popped up in the first results were a lot of good links to sites I've visited over the years as my love affair with the genre and aesthetic has developed. I did notice, however, that one of the definitions the Urban Dictionary gives for dieselpunk says, "Dieselpunk is an art style and subculture that blends the aesthetics / pop culture of the 1920s - 1950s with today." No. At least, not the way I see it. Dieselpunk, like many of the other -punks, is a retro-futuristic genre and aesthetic. It sort of skips today, other than having today's values (or at least, the values of some people today) imbedded in it. So there are women who are mechanics, unlike what you'd come across in most movies or literature from the era. There are people of color in lead roles. Hell, you might even get a main character who is both a woman and nonwhite (I know that's crazy talk, but wouldn't it be nice?). Contemporary (liberal) values are an important aspect, and some would argue this aspect is the "punk" ingredient. However, when it comes to how dieselpunk looks, today doesn't figure in. It's a combination of the culture of some part of the interwar through WWII era (that's another thing about the Urban Dictionary definition--I know others have extended dieselpunk into the 50s, but I really feel it ends in 1945, with the atom bomb... then you get atompunk). Then, you take some of the ideas people had at the time about how the future would look, and you stir those into the mix. Hence my art deco city can have robots.

I think if you look at steampunk, you have additional elements of imagined technology that come from the authors themselves, though these grow out of a love of the same aspects as I've already noted. So in the steampunk movie, Wild Wild West (which, okay, was pretty bad, but go with me here), there can be a huge clockwork spider weapon thing. The operative quality is clockwork. I don't think anyone in the steam era ever envisioned big spider weapons, but the clockwork aspect is part of the aesthetic of steampunk. It's also its own subgenre, but I expect that's even more obscure than dieselpunk. Anyway, the same can be said about dieselpunk; namely that authors can take the imagined technologies of science fiction from the era (be it the 1920s, the 1930s, or the 1940s) and run with it, inventing something that the people of that era would not have thought of. People did think of robots in the 1920s, even if everyone may not have called them robots back then (the term was coined in 1920 though), so even within the confines of the imaginations of people in the 1920s, robots and art deco cities can and do exist.

Anyway, I think that I've beaten that into the ground now. Can you tell I was a little ruffled by the reactions of those who balked at my robots? Let's move on.

Dieselpunk is obscure, and really, that's a shame. A lot of people are missing out. And I'm not just saying this because if dieselpunk suddenly became the new steampunk my book would be a best-seller. No, in fact, I think that those who are really missing out are all the WWII-heads. My book is based in a 1920s aesthetic, so I have nothing to gain by pointing this out, unless I can hope for some glory by association. There are a lot of people out there who love WWII stories. They are fascinated with the real history. They'll also go see fictional stories set in the period. Just look at the line up on The History Channel sometime. Okay, so it's dominated by Pawn Stars (how did that happen, again?) but if you look at the two or three shows that aren't Pawn Stars, I guarantee you that half or more will be about WWII. Most of the people watching those shows and subscribing to World War II History Magazine would love WWII era dieselpunk, ya know?

So why hasn't dieselpunk caught on?

Well, giving it a little more thought, I wonder if the punk element, if you agree that it does encompass the postmodern and post-colonial aspects of today's values, may be the sticking point. For some people, anyway. I assume (and you know how that goes) that the demographic targeted by WWII magazines and shows and such is generally going to look a lot like my father-in-law, who is, himself, a fan of those things. And my father-in-law is a white male baby-boomer who feels really threatened by empowered women, LGBTQA people and people of color. So as much as dieselpunk stories draw on aspects of the WWII era that people like my FiL really like, the punk aspects, namely female mechanics and such, are going to turn them off. "What is this politically correct garbage?" they'll cry. "In the WWII era the men were men, the women were loyal housewives--except when they were factory workers but they only did that to support the men and then they went back into the kitchen when the men came home and--oh yeah! The men were all white. Let's not get our undies in a bunch about the Tuskegee Airmen again, okay? It was one group. Okay, okay, there were Navaho code-talkers, too, are we going to have to throw them a parade? Let's just forget about them because the men who were men were all white men and we don't want to even think about the Japanese Americans who fought in the American military despite the hundreds of thousands Roosevelt interned--after all, Roosevelt was a bit of a commie anyway, and aren't we all lucky Truman came along and nuked the Japs? That sure showed those Russians! Anyway it was just a matter of time before the Japs at home turned on us all, you know..."

I could go on.

As a history nerd (and teacher), this sort of thing is, to deliberately understate it, icky. But it's there. The people who love the period are usually not going to love the postmodern spin on the period.

Okay, so that raises another question for me. Why aren't people who are hip to stuff like post-colonialism getting excited about dieselpunk?

Wait. Wait. I think I have an idea.

It's because it's diesel.

If you're into diesel, you're celebrating an era of anti-environmentalism. I mean, you're basically waving a flag that says, "Yay Fossil Fuels!" So people who like gender equality and see all people as being valuable and celebrate difference and all that good stuff aren't generally going to get excited about diesel. Diesel is dirty, bad for the environment...

Wow, I think I just realized why dieselpunk isn't going to be the next steampunk in terms of popularity. Of course, dystopias are popular at the moment, so I suppose as a possible dystopian landscape, the combination of diesel with the punk value system could be appealing.

What do you think? Is dieselpunk doomed to remain an obscure genre and aesthetic?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Blurb Writing Hell

Yep, that's where I am. I got some feedback on the blurb I wrote for The City Darkens (along the lines of it sucking) so now I'm trying without a ton of success to rewrite it. I'm really lucky, though, because a bunch of people are helping me (for free!) on AbsoluteWrite. I am genuinely grateful for this. I've realized, though, just how very, very bad I am at writing blurbs. (I've also realized how truly obscure dieselpunk is to the vast majority of people out there, even other writers on AW, but that's not the point of this blog post.)

I never really thought I was great at writing blurbs, you know, but now I have a sense for how truly terrible I am at it. For one thing, I usually only read the first two sentences of a blurb on a novel I'm thinking of reading. I do this not because I'm impatient (well... maybe that too) but because I hate when blurbs have spoilers in them. And they almost always do. And basically a lot of the advice I've been getting from the folks at AW is leading me to do some of that with my TCD blurb. This so goes against my tastes. But let's face it, writing, "This is a really great novel. Trust me. You'll like it. You don't want me to give away why, right? Just trust me." Isn't going to work. So I'm biting the bullet and writing a new blurb that says a lot more about the story than the original blurb did.

In my latest attempt, I went and looked at the blurb for Kushiel's Dart, since it was one of the books that I thought of when I was coming up with my ideas for TCD (Cynthia Voigt's Jackaroo was another, as were a couple of Marion Zimmer Bradley novels). I followed the Kushiel blurb line by line, trying to come up with what the equivalent would be for TCD. That was interesting, and some of the AW peeps say they like this latest version the best. Now, of course, I'm going to rework it, both to incorporate the newest feedback but also to change it enough that it's not so close to the Kushiel blurb.

This process is frustrating and tiring and may be interfering with my regular writing energies. In any case, I haven't worked on the WiP in a couple of days. I haven't wanted to, which is disappointing because for a while there I was chugging right along. Today, though, I did think of something that was missing in the story, so with luck, I'll find the energy for it again tomorrow. 

When you read blurbs, do you like there to be a lot of information about the story, or do you avoid finding out a lot, like I do?

What qualities do the best blurbs have?

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Outcome of My Recent Resolution

Anyone with even a slight penchant for cynicism probably would have predicted the outcome of my little "I'm going to wake up early to write" idea without even trying. Yes, you cynics, you were right, that never happened. Not once.

HOWEVER, it is my pleasure to stick my tongue out at you cynical bastards and say I STARTED TO WRITE ANYWAY. (Do you like how I've suddenly turned this into some sort of bizarre adversarial thing between me and unnamed "cynical bastards"? I can be dramatic like that for no good reason other than it amuses me.)

The point is, all of a sudden* I found the energy for it. Isn't that great? Last Saturday, during the little one's nap, I sat down on the couch with my laptop instead of at my desk on my gaming computer where I go to play The Sims. I reread the 48K or so words I had done on the sequel to The City Darkens and then began adding to them. I've written about 10K more so far.

Onwards and upwards. What obstacle have you overcome recently? Even the little ones count.

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* It didn't happen out of nowhere. It's all due to my friend and beta-reader Kathryn, who finished reading what I had written and told me the main character, Ginna, is a badass. And I was like, "Yeah, Ginna is a badass. I really like Ginna." And all of a sudden I wanted to be writing Ginna again.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Finding a Way to Write

Other than the aberration of NaNoWriMo, I haven't written since this summer. I haven't been in the mood. And yet, I have been getting ideas for new stories. So I've thought about working on them, but I just can't bring myself to do that while my two WiPs, which are both around 50K words at the moment, languish in the background. Meanwhile, my incredibly talented beta-reader (this should probably actually say "unpaid editor," because she's that amazing), Kathryn, has been reading one of the WiPs at my request, and showering me with encouraging praise, also at my request, in an effort to jump-start my mojo again. So far, to no avail. And it's all starting to affect my mental health, as not-writing tends to do after enough time passes.

I could whine for several paragraphs about why this is all happening, but what it really comes down to more than anything is time management. And what I realized this morning is that what I must figure out a time for writing other than during the little one's nap, because that's not working at the moment.

The only other time I can come up with is in the early morning. This time period hasn't historically been a successful one for writing, but I think I have to try it, because maybe doing that will kick my mojo back into gear and I will be able to do it during the little one's naps again. I suppose we'll see. At worst, I'll wake up early a couple of times and get a couple of thousand words written, and then I'll decide I can't maintain the schedule, and that will be that. At this point, a couple of thousand words is better than no words at all.

I'm kind of excited to try this. :)

How about you? Do you have any tricks for jump-starting your creativity when you're in a slump?