To all the whitewashed sepulchres out there….

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”

Matthew 23:27 (NIV)

This post is directed at my fellow Christians, specifically evangelicals. All heathens, pagans, and atheists can disregard or just watch from the sidelines. But I need to get this off my chest, because I can’t see straight right now.

I am torqued twice over about the World Vision retreat on inclusion of LGBT persons in legal marriages.

First, because some evangelicals believe ideological purity is more important than feeding and clothing real children, and second because World Vision beat a hasty retreat in the face of criticism and the potential loss of sponsorship. If World Vision wasn’t ready to stand by its decision to include LGBT individuals in legally recognized marriages in its staff, it should never have made the announcement in the first place.

But it’s my fellow evangelicals I’m really mad at. Those of you who think it proper to pull sponsorship from World Vision over this issue, this is what I have to say to you– you are white-washed sepulchres, you are hypocrites, you are the worst and most self-satisfied species of Pharisee. How dare you deny innocent children what they need to live because you disapprove of some of the hands through which it passes?

Sojourners ran a good article in response (although many of the comments by readers betray just the attitude I’m ranting against). The writer sums up the counter-argument very well, in my opinion– read the article.

Here’s my position– I will continue to sponsor a child through World Vision, despite their caving to political pressure masquerading as the Gospel. It’s the children who are important. And somebody needs to take up the slack for alleged Christians who are too “holy” to be of any use to God.

Reconsider and repent.

Scary stories

Not stories about ghosts, werewolves, vampires or IRS tax audits. Oh, no. I’m not talking about stories you read to make yourself shiver. I am talking about story ideas so big, so ambitious, they intimidate me as a writer.

I have a few of these, some of which I’ve been mulling over in my brain for years– but which I have never had the courage to put on paper or hard drive. Perhaps tellingly, these are mainly mainstream literary ideas, rather than genre.

Among these concepts–

1. A contemporary novel, working title Life in the Abyssal Plain. This is only tangentially informed by my own life (a strictly autobiographical novel based on me would be useful only as a door-stop), but I find its protagonist– a man who has always felt out of step with his universe, reaching middle-age with nothing to show for it– compelling. But, frankly, writing about real life is much more intimidating than writing about dragons and space battles.

2. An unnamed Vietnam War novel. Although I have thought about it a lot, this one is so intimidating I will probably never write it, at least as a novel set in Vietnam. I lived through the Sixties, but I was never in Vietnam. I was in the Army, but my service was years later and I never saw combat. If I tried to write a novel about the war in Vietnam, I would almost certainly commit a thousand errors. It would also take a particularly rank sort of hubris for someone like me to write, as a non-participant, about a subject for which there are so many books– If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, Fields of Fire, and Matterhorn as just a few examples– by people who were there, and who are still around.

But I did live through the Sixties, and I was in the Army after the war, serving with men who were in Vietnam (by-and-large damn fine people), and I can say something about that. I have an unpublished novelette based on my time in the Army, but I need to rethink it pretty thoroughly before I try to recreate it as a novel.

3. A Civil War novel, working title Leaves in the Stream. Yeah, probably a little too close to Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, but it captures the concept I have of the war sweeping an entire set of families, white and black, downstream through history, with the characters unable to resist the current. Its protagonist is a young Southerner fighting for the North. I relate pretty strongly to this character– I come from a southern family proud of its Confederate heritage, in which I was the only kid impertinent enough to remind everyone about the inconvenient fact of slavery (funny, I’m also the only one who now lives north of the Mason-Dixon. Hmmm…). My novella The Peach Orchard was actually a first essay at telling this story, as well as my first real attempt at historical fiction. It will probably serve as the jumping-off point for the novel when I write it.

This novel is close to my heart. The Civil War in general hovers over Southerners in way it does not for Northerners. More than that, this is family history for me, as well as the history of my nation, and I think there are important things I can say about it.

The problem is that this concept scares me witless.

This is the one story I have to get right (above and beyond just getting it right as a story). More than the overwhelming historical detail (and that alone is staggering), I absolutely don’t want to turn out yet another pot-boiling soap opera (and there have been so many Civil War pot-boilers, starting with that gold-plated turd, Gone With the Wind). That sort of failure would kill me. The terror of doing this wrong has been paralyzing. And then there’s the scale of it– if you do it right and don’t restrict your focus to one battle or one section of the country (as with Across Five Aprils, for example), you’re almost sure to turn out something longer than War and Peace— and length is not necessarily an indicator of quality.

Writing The Peach Orchard was confidence-building, but in the scheme of the whole novel it would be only about one or two chapters. I’ve been reading historical fiction on the war, including The Killer Angels and The March, but in some ways that’s counter-productive– reading works by masters only serves to remind me of far short I fall.

Which is probably what this all boils down to– my sense of inadequacy as a writer. I’m not formally trained, and I feel that most keenly when I contemplate projects like these. The sad truth is that I am far more confident handling science-fiction and fantasy (although Princess of Fire has lately been causing me to question even that) than in making everyday life interesting– which is probably a pointed comment on my writing abilities in-and-of itself.

At some point, however, I will have to screw my courage to the sticking point and just do these stories. Or, to put it another way, close my eyes and think of the book covers. Because, frankly, these projects represent something of a bucket list for me as a writer. And I ain’t getting any younger.

SUNDAY PHOTO FICTION– The broken bridges

Photo Copyright Al Forbes
Photo Copyright Al Forbes

Flash fiction based on a photo.

Pretty sure this doesn’t work, but I thought I’d give it a shot, anyway.

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“The bridges are down,” Sebae whispered, horrified.

I looked. The fog dispersed into a low-lying layer ahead of us. Over it I saw the Salt Island bridge– except it was no longer a bridge. On the eastward side of the River the upper deck had collapsed into the lower. Metal filaments and broken chunks of plasticrete alone remained of the towers that had supported it.

To the west, the bridge was simply gone. Water rushed about pilings and ruined pieces of bridge deck protruding from the water. Far beyond, I saw only a wrecked tracery of metal that had been the Tulland bridge.

“All gone,” Sebae said, still whispering, as if he could not believe it. “The settlements….”

He didn’t have to finish the thought. I leaned for a moment on my paddle. Five thousand years— that’s how long the bridges had stood– built by the Ancients to endure. And the Firebringer had destroyed them in a night, with less thought than a child might have for a toy they did not want.

“What do we do now?” Sebae said, sounding lost.

I breathed deep, put my paddle in the water again. “Row,” I said. “The messages won’t wait.”

Speaking of Ripley…..

Made this–

ripleycatharsis2

Original is here (somehow the link won’t attach to the picture itself).

It is entirely possible I have too much time on my hands….

On a positive note, tomorrow I have my first face-to-face job interview in three months. If you’re of a praying persuasion, I would not look askance at that sort of support.

Films that inspire me– “Aliens”

Once more, I need you to join me in the Wayback Machine. We’re returning to a distant historical era– the ’70’s. Specifically Fall, 1979, in a small movie theater in a US Army kaserne in Germany. The geeky kid in the Army-issue glasses, about midway down the auditorium, is me. I’m about to watch Alien for the first time.

I didn’t go into this movie cold– I had intentionally spoiled myself at the World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton, England that summer, where there were exhibits and people from the production. (Yes, I am a spoiler junkie. It doesn’t really affect my enjoyment of a movie– or a book, for that matter– and it has saved me from some notable catastrophes). I was therefore forewarned going into a movie I might not have seen otherwise.

Oh, by the way–

***SPOILERS******SPOILERS******SPOILERS******SPOILERS***

I have mentioned before that I do not like horror, and I might have skipped a film that was set up as the sort of horror flick in which a cast of colorful characters gets picked off one-by-one, but its space setting, and the production values associated with it, got my butt in the theater seat. Ridley Scott, in his second directorial effort for film, and the producers Gordon Carroll, David Giler, and Walter Hill, all made a serious effort to create a believable, workaday science-fiction universe in which to tell their story, and discussions about it at the convention had persuaded me this was a film I wanted to see.

I found myself drawn in and held tight by a story that kept you guessing, despite a few flaws in its logic and some actions that did not make complete sense. I was particularly mesmerized by the young actress playing Ripley, who seemed to be the only character who had her head on halfway straight. It was the first time I had ever seen Sigourney Weaver, and I’ve been in love ever since.

(If by this you construe I like skinny, dark-haired women, I would have to say “yes” and ask you what your point is).

I liked the movie so much I watched it three times in a week, no mean feat when movies in the military theater system were usually there and gone before you could blink. I enjoyed the gritty feel of the film, the interactions between the crew, the derelict alien ship, and the spooky Space Jockey. The alien itself was refreshingly, well, alien, and I found I could deal with the horror elements without open weeping (yeah, I’m a wuss). Ripley was largely responsible for that– I was rooting for her from about the seven minute mark in the film. I am so very glad Ridley Scott was talked out of killing her off at the end of the film– the ending in its final form was just about perfect, and was the perfect setup for Aliens.

Fast forward seven years. I am out of the Army, working in California as a baker in a health food bakery (with a cockroach problem– go figure). When I hear that a sequel of Alien is being made, I am interested. When I see the trailers and realize that the second movie has a military flavor, I am very interested.

Aliens opened on July 18, 1986–

Personally, I have to count that date as one of the watersheds of my life.

It is hard for me to overstate the impact this film had on me, and continues to have to this day. It pushed just about every sci-fi action-adventure button I have. Once again the story centered on Ripley, now overwhelmed by the memories of what happened in the first film. At the end of Alien, Ripley is in an escape pod, in suspended animation, hoping to get rescued. Instead, she drifts right through human space and is only found fifty-seven years later. Her story of the destruction of her crew by a supremely vicious alien is not believed, particularly as there have been colonists on LV-426, the planetoid where her crew found the first alien, for many years.

Then contact is lost with LV-426 and Ripley goes with a platoon of Colonial Marines to investigate. Needless to say, things go from bad to worse to utterly catastrophic, except that this time there is visceral satisfaction in the discovery that these aliens (most definitely plural this time) go to pieces quite nicely under heavy munitions. It’s military stupidity and corporate cupidity that get Ripley and the Marines in trouble this time.

In the process Ripley connects with a young survivor of the colony, a shell-shocked little girl called Newt, and their relationship becomes the emotional linchpin of the whole story. When things go really bad, and Newt appears to be lost to the aliens, it is Ripley’s irrational refusal to accept that fact that pushes her, and the story, into a cathartic, and climatic, confrontation.

I enjoy action-adventure films, but I have never been a fan of the sort of action film that seem to exist primarily to showcase explosions and things going fast– I have had zero interest in The Fast and the Furious franchise, and do not get me started on 300 and similar trash. I prefer adventure movies in which something is at stake, and which possess some heart. Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (particularly The Fellowship of the the Ring), Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, and Peter Weir’s Master and Commander are all examples of the sort of adventure film that holds my interest.

For me Aliens is supremely this type of film. Ripley’s struggle to overcome her demons (figurative and literal) is where we start. Slowly she becomes part of an extended family of Marines, and then comes her connection with Newt. At this point Ripley once again has something to lose, and something to protect, and it forces her out of her fear into courage. That’s the best sort of adventure film– not populated by super-beings, but ordinary humans who struggle to overcome obstacles far greater than themselves to preserve something precious, or forestall a horrible evil.

It does not hurt at all that Aliens is one of the most tightly written action films ever, basically keeping you legitimately on the edge of your seat and/or hanging on to the back of the one in front of you the whole way through. To this day, when the second drop-ship is heading straight for the atmosphere processing plant to rescue Newt, I simply cannot sit still.

Looked at another way, Aliens is almost the only great sci-fi military film, for my money the closest anyone has ever come to adapting Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (Verhoeven’s abortion does not count. Uh-uh, sorry). James Cameron, in fact, asked the actors portraying the Marines to read the novel during preparations for filming.

A special edition of the movie, released in 1992, restores seventeen minutes of footage that had been cut from the theatrical release. It’s not an unmixed blessing– it telegraphs things about the colony on LV-426 that had been left as spooky mysteries in the theatrical version. But the special edition works for me because it critically expands Ripley’s character and deepens her relationship with Newt. In the extended version, when Ripley is willing to go into the bowels of her personal nightmare to save Newt, you understand exactly why.

Now, let me balance this all out. I don’t believe Aliens is the greatest science-fiction film ever. There are films with more profound themes and deeper examinations of human nature and the meaning of the universe. Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner (particularly the director’s cut) is certainly a contender for that title. Nor is Aliens absolutely perfect in its execution– some of the characters are not fleshed out (let’s face it, they’re there to be alien-fodder) and some of the plot points don’t quite make sense (if the second drop-ship was available the whole time, why didn’t they call it down at once, instead of waiting for the processing station to start going into overload?). You don’t really notice, though, because the film as a whole just pulls you along and enlists you in the fight these people are waging to survive.

This film is probably a good portion of the reason why I am spoiled for lesser action flicks. When I want to remember how to structure a story that you can’t put down, built around people you give a damn about, I think of Aliens. The first movie script I ever bought (during one of my delusional periods in which I thought I could be a screenwriter) was for Aliens. This film taught me a lot about story and action, and it’s a personal touchstone of quality. I’m almost tempted to say they don’t make movies like this anymore, but I keep hoping….

As for the Alien franchise, it took a nose dive after Aliens with the two subsequent sequels. Re: Alien 3— wretched trash. Do not bother. Alien Resurrection— its got some cute moments, but mostly meh.

(By the way, if the folks who own this property happen to be reading this, I have a concept that will reboot the franchise. Call me. Seriously).

The worst first draft EVER….

I’ve been AWOL for a few days, dealing with employment issues (still got none), personal issues (you don’t want to know), health issues (nothing serious, but yucky) and general morale issues (running on fumes). You don’t know how important it is to be gainfully employed until you’re sitting at home watching the same YouTube video for the fifteenth time.

You would think that I would get at least a little lift out of the fact that I have cleared 90,000 words on Princess of Fire. The problem is that I am increasingly convinced that this draft is quite possibly the worst first draft ever. In the history of Western literature. Maybe in the history of world literature, right back to Gilgamesh. It’s even worse than the first draft of Princess of Shadows, and that was a nightmare. So far I’m hanging on to my resolution to keep pushing ahead, but I’m fighting the urge to call this thing good-enough and start Fire 2.0. In truth, though, I really want to write at least another twenty thousand words to cover major gaps in the narrative. I would much prefer to have those gaps filled in before I start thinking about remedial action.

The silver lining on this cloud, the one happy thought, is that I now have a very good idea how this story needs to be structured. Kathy is faced with two simultaneous series of events that keeps her bouncing from crisis to crisis, while she battles intransigence close at hand and her own doubts. I now have a very good idea who the characters are, good, stupid and indifferent. I am also getting a fair idea what’s surplus. And it has been the act of writing that has revealed all this. Once I do start Fire 2.0, there will be a tremendous amount of work to do restructuring and re-writing, but I’ll be on much firmer ground than when I started this whole project. All of my original timelines for this project are probably junk at this point, but I’m used to that.

Now if I could just make money at this…. 🙂

Sunday Photo Fiction: March 9th 2014 – The Enchanted Grove

Sunday Photo Fiction— 100 to 200 words inspired by a photo–

Copyright – Al Forbes
Copyright – Al Forbes

(Okay, this is getting out of hand– two poems in one month. It’s probably because I don’t have a day job…. 😉 ).

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The pond
a still ocean
the distant traffic noise
the music of the spheres

In this enchanted grove
dragonflies are X-wings
and tadpoles
are submarines

A trout breaks the surface
doubtless, it is
the awful and fearsome
Kraken, writhing in rage

The trees round about
the pool the forest primeval
not yet sullied
by the tread of man

The far shore
is a misty,
mysterious foreign land
barely to be seen

There dwells a lady
sad and proud
whose call for aid
echoes among the sun-lit leaves

To heed the call
a hero must brave
the sea, the Kraken
the enemy submarines

Perhaps
the lady will be patient
as the hero
is not yet ten

I ain’t no screenwriter….

….and occasionally the universe rears up and smacks me across the face with the wet mackerel of reminder about that fact.

Progress on Princess of Fire appears to be coming in fits and starts at this point– one day I’ll do a thousand words, and the next I’ll do two hundred, which wouldn’t be so bad, except the day after that I’ll do nothing. Picture an icebreaker in Antarctica….

Yesterday while I was not writing Fire I started doodling on a synopsis of a screenplay idea I’ve had for some time, and was pleased that I resolved a piece of action that had been hanging me up. When complete, this synopsis– which, in my innocence, I have dared to call a “treatment”– may be about six pages long.

That’s when I made a big mistake– I googled “film treatment”, found the Wikipedia article on the subject, and discovered that James Cameron’s original treatment for Terminator is available for free online. I downloaded it.

It makes my effort look like a first-grader’s mud-pie.

We’re talking forty-eight pages of awesome. Camera directions. Scene settings. Dialogue. Even in the treatment the unforgiving pace that makes watching Terminator an activity that requires a safety harness comes through.

My synopsis doesn’t do that. It sorta flops over and lies there, gasping.

Sigh. I should have known better– I love film, but I have no training in screenwriting, and it shows. I’ve made one or two efforts at writing a screenplay– I’ve even got a copy of Final Draft– but my efforts are weak tea, at best. I seem to do better with prose. Not incredibly better, but some.

Is there a moral in this? I don’t want to go on record telling people they shouldn’t work at something outside their comfort zone. Absolutely do so if there is something you’re burning to achieve. But it is a reminder for me that I should not dissipate my energy on things that have little chance of success– I don’t have enough time left on this Earth to be engaged in the pursuit of non-domesticated water-fowl.

Besides, that film idea would probably make a dandy novel…hmm.

Later.

Films that inspire me– “Things to Come” and the history that wasn’t– Part Two

(This is the second part of my discussion of the movie Things to Come)

Part Two– how this film inspires me.

My previous post was an appreciation of Alexander Korda’s Things to Come, discussing how it is a powerful, if sometimes disturbing, early science-fiction film classic. One of the powerful aspects of the film is that it took contemporary events and concerns of 1936 and projected them into an effective “future history“. There were many thunderstorms looming on the horizon that year. Germany was rising again under the Nazi dictatorship, which had no scruples about telling the whole world what it meant to do, especially in Eastern Europe. Asia had already seen the Japanese takeover of Manchuria in 1931 and would see all-out war between Japan and China in 1937. Civil War broke out in Spain in July, 1936, in what most historians now see as a dress-rehearsal for World War II. It didn’t take much prescience to see that another general war was coming.

The course the film lays out for this new Great War is a reasonable projection of the first Great War, which was deadlocked for most of its history. Supposing that the war could go on for year after year of bloody stalemate was not a wild leap of the imagination. In that stalemate the breakdown of civilization and the previous world order was all-too-reasonably a possibility.

The fact that the actual history did not turn out the way Things to Come thought they might teaches us some lessons about the business of alternate history. It also teaches us something about irony.

In its classic form, alternate history takes a single, critical event and changes it– Lee Harvey Oswald misses Kennedy, Hitler dies of poison gas in World War One, Harry Truman loses the 1948 presidential election– and examines how that one change alters history. When it’s done thoughtfully and well, alternate history can create worlds that are tragic, or evocative of what might have been, and can teach us important lessons about the contingency of life and history on decisions which might even appear trivial at that moment.

Watching Things to Come reminds me of all the ways history could have turned out differently in World War Two. The period is loaded with potential branch points for an alternate history, and it’s been a favorite of sci-fi writers for decades. World War Two is also a rich field for alternate history writers because the moral implications of a Nazi victory in the war would have been so profound– a nightmare that barely bears thinking about. Even short of that catastrophe, postwar history could have turned out a thousand different ways, right down to the very personal and intimate. What if Anne Frank had survived the war? What if Eisenhower and Kay Summersby had really hooked up? What if Hitler had immigrated to America in 1919 and become an illustrator for science-fiction magazines– which is the actual premise of Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream.

All of this is fertile ground for science-fiction writers, and looks to remain so for a long time to come.

At this point, though, you might be asking what Things to Come has to with alternate history– it was created as a future-history, not alternate history. To put it simply, all future-histories are fated to become alternate history. Eventually every future sketched out by an author finds itself diverging from factual history, real-life events having no obligation to adhere to some writer’s conception of what path they should follow. When this happens, some authors try to retcon their stories, but others throw in the towel and say, “It’s alternate history”. As an example, the future history of Star Trek, as described in the original series, has now diverged from factual history (no Eugenics War in the 1990’s, etc.).

In the case of The Shape of Things to Come, Wells’ original 1933 novel, his future history was obsolete almost at once. Things to Come did a little bit better, but by 1946 or so it was already diverging from real life– Western civilization did not fall into a recurring cycle of hot wars lasting a generation, but rather a Cold War with peripheral bush-wars and serious economic and political competition between East and West.

So why didn’t the future of Things to Come become our factual history?

The answer is pretty damn ironic– nuclear weapons.

Suppose that nuclear science took a different path in the 1930’s and that no one on the planet in 1940 has an inkling that nuclear weapons are a practical possibility. That means no Manhattan Project, no Tube Alloys (the code-name for the British bomb project), no German nuclear weapon program, no Soviet effort, no Japanese investigations– every major power had some sort of nuclear research going on on during the war. In fact, one of the poorly remembered aspects of the history of World War II is that, in certain circles, there was real fear the Germans were years ahead of the Allies and might deploy a weapon before them. In fact, for several different reasons, they were years behind.

Just as it was in the factual history, in our alternate history the war in Europe would have been won by conventional forces in the spring of 1945. The immediate result of our small alteration would almost certainly have been that the planned invasion of Japan in the autumn of 1945 would have gone forward. The Allies anticipated a long, hard campaign to subjugate the Japanese home islands, including a million casualties (killed, wounded, missing). There is no telling how devastated such a invasion would have left Japan, over and above the destruction already wrecked by aerial bombing.

Suppose the conquest of Japan adds two additional years or so to the war, so that World War Two ends in 1947 or 1948 (GIs in the Pacific anticipated this– their poetic formula for the end of the war was “Golden Gate in ’48”). America’s instinct then, as it was in the factual history, would have almost certainly been to demobilize the Army.

But….

In the absence of a nuclear deterrent, it is conceivable that the Soviets, under Stalin, would have seen the weak occupation forces the Western allies had in Germany (and they were weak), and been tempted to use the still powerful Red Army to try and scoop up West Berlin and then the rest of Germany. If so, the war would have resumed as the former allies fell out (as former allies tend to do)– and Wells’ generation of war would have been well under way.

In the factual history, though, nuclear weapons made even Joe Stalin think twice about resuming conventional warfare in the heart of Europe. The salient irony of nuclear weapons in the Cold War is that they were practically useless, in any traditional war-making sense– nobody ever figured out a meaningful definition of “victory” in a nuclear-armed standoff. As a result, a kind of quasi-peace settled over Europe, allowing it to rebuild and affording two generations of Europeans the time and space to buy Mercedes and Audis and time-shares in Majorca, rather than having to scratch for food amid the ruins of Birmingham or Paris.

This is what makes alternate history so much fun, seeing how one factor can change the whole historical equation. It’s also what makes it very hard to get right.

But I intend to keep trying.

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My next post on a film that inspires me– Aliens. Oh, yeah– this is the big one. Buckle up.