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Posts Tagged ‘sci fi’

Time Travel is a concept that has served many literary needs: a protagonist’s hopes and desires, what-if scenarios for historical events, and philosophical puzzles and paradoxes, to name a few. It’s a trope with multiple subtropes, and typically involves a futuristic machine and a scientist out to change an event in the past or prevent one in the future. TV shows from The Twilight Zone in the 60s to the current Timeless on NBC have put time travel front and center. Movie franchises have been built around it (Terminator, Back to the Future). Every sci fi writer alive today probably has a dozen or more story concepts based on time travel stuffed into a drawer.

One of Time Travel’s subtropes is what I call Magic Time Gone Wrong. Magic Time, for those who know their faerie myths, is what sets apart the magical world from ours. Whereas our time is linear, Magic Time is circular. All magic spells rely on this fact; a circle drawn in a spell is a graphic manifestation of the time’s circle. A circle has no beginning or end, thus creating a mental form of the infinite. In its most obvious manifestation, Magic Time brings us back to the elemental cycles and rhythms of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun and moon. In linear time, birth is the beginning and death the end; in Magic Time, the two cannot be separated.

Time Travel stories that make use of Magic Time are invariably much less geared toward sci fi. Futuristic machines and evil scientists are often absent altogether, for the engine that drives the loop often can only be described in mysterious ways. These stories are rarely about historical events, but personal karma, in which the main character invariably must find their way out of the time loop that has them mercilessly trapped.

The most well-known example of this story is the engaging and popular movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray as a weatherman seemingly doomed to repeat one day for the rest of his life (so popular has this movie become over time—heh heh—that “groundhog day” has entered the common vernacular to mean something happening to someone over and over again, usually with distressing consequences). Murray’s character Phil the Weatherman cannot hop into a machine and travel out of the loop; he has to feel his way out. He must undergo personal growth before he can be released from Magic Time.

Among many books for children that employ time travel, Dorian Cirrone’s recently published middle grade novel The First Last Day also relies on a time loop to provide her main character’s obstacle that doubles as a vehicle for self-discovery. Instead of a weatherman, Haleigh Adams is an eleven-year-old girl who, without realizing it, paints a picture that magically makes her live out her last day of a beach vacation over and over again. Like Phil, she has no technological way out. Her only hope is to find the instructions to the box of paints that mysteriously showed up in her backpack. Ultimately she succeeds only by perserverance, and by learning to trust her best friend, a boy she might have a crush on. By repeatedly going over the same events over and over again, she tries in subtle ways to alter reality, but nothing works until she makes a connection with her friend’s grandmother that helps her unpaint the painting and consciously choose to undue her wish for the last day of vacation to never end.

Though The First Last Day tracks Groundhog Day very closely, the main characters are quite different. Phil the Weatherman is a blasé, arrogant fool who grows so despondent he tries to commit suicide to escape the loop, only to find himself waking up yet again to the same song (“I Got You Babe”) on his clock radio. Haleigh is a bright, creative preteen who has self-image problems but otherwise is the kind of person you’d like to know. Unlike Haleigh, Phil doesn’t have a magic paintbox—his time loop ends just as mysteriously as it begins, but only after he discovers the power of love. Haleigh’s journey isn’t nearly so harrowing, but it does include a lesson in the power of letting go and accepting death. While one story is for adults and the other for grade school readers, each treats Magic Time as the power that drives personal change.

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Todd.
Todd.
Todd.

“What do you effing want, you effing ruddy dog? Why does my name keep coming out of yer noise over and over and over?”

Over.
And over.

Review, Todd.
Review.

“Will you keep yer ruddy effing NOISE outta here, do? I have to rite this dedikashun and then I have to rite this introdukshun and then an explanashun so my reeders will understand my effing novel, The Bludgeon of Letting It Go On and On! So will you ruddy well leave me alone, now?”

But he doesn’t leave me alone.
He just effing won’t leave me alone.
He just wags his tail and slinks over where I’m sitting at my desk and now his tail wags some more and it just keeps wagging and I’m going WHAT and he’s going REVIEW REVIEW REVIEW Todd and I’m going HOW ABOUT A WALK and he’s going READ THE REVIEW and finally I just collapse on the floor because I ain’t gonna read no effing review because I know what it’s gonna say I just know it and the floor hits my head real hard and now I’ve gotta headache to go with all this NOISE in my head because I just know what the review is gonna say.

The ruddy effing dog just drops the review in front of me and wags his tail. He’s a good dog, he chewed the review up pretty good and his saliva is slobbered all over it and I ain’t a good reeder anyway but still I gotta do this, I gotta read this thing, even if it is chewed up pretty good and there’s saliva all over it. So I unfold that effing peace of paper as best I can and peer at the effing review and this is what I reed:

Your book is way too long, Mr. Hewitt. Entire swathes of this manuscript should be cut. The fight scenes are mindless bloody things that are neither entertaining nor informative. Yes, you are occasionally funny, and the dog is a good dog. The concept is workable. But do we really need to hear you say the same thing over and over and again? And does the ending have to be so terrible? Do you really think people are going to want to read more of this garbage? Todd? Hey, Todd, I’m talking to you!

But I cain’t read no more because Manchee has snapped that review out of my hands and is chewing it right down.

Good dog.

Getting Serious Now: You’ve probably figured out that this novel left me with a nasty case of why-did-I-read-this. Yes, but there’s more to it than that. At a certain point in the story I actually did hold out hope that the author had finally gotten beyond his incessant hammering stream-of-noise obsession with incipient violence to actually craft a relationship that had poignancy, that held out hope for something meaningful. Unfortunately, in a misguided attempt to generate excitement (or disgust?), at story’s end the author felt it necessary to revert to the same style that earlier had forced me to skip over dozens of pages in order to get to actual storytelling.

I was going to compare Knife to a number of other stories, among them the first book in Tolkien’s Trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. Only when Frodo finally makes it to Rivendell he finds the place razed to the ground by marauding orcs who’ve now stuck Elf heads on top of pikes, and then Frodo’s beloved Sam gets disemboweled by a Dark Rider. Doesn’t leave much room for a trilogy, IMHO.

Then there’s another knife fantasy, Phil Pullman’s The Subtle Knife. “Subtle” is the key word here. Will uses that knife to carefully slice open the magical membranes separating parallel worlds, not to repeatedly plunge into a helpless alien’s chest over and over.

And since Knife is a dystopian novel featuring a young innocent boy who discovers terrible secrets and leaves his narrow world for wider horizons, I was going to compare it to Lois Lowry’s The Giver. Except Lowry’s novel is so much better crafted that it’s not really fair to compare them.

I guess what it comes down to is this: Maybe, just maybe, Ness should have made this a graphic novel. Minus all the graphic scenes that nobody in his right mind would want to look at, let alone read.

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Feed(Beware of spoilers, unit.)

It wasn’t until I’d finished reading Feed, M.T. Anderson’s brutal dystopian take on the insidious combination of capitalism and social media, that I realized that this book is an inversion of the previous dystopian YA novel I’d read, The Hunger Games.

At the beginning of that novel, protagonist Katniss’s primary preoccupation is with finding enough to eat; she has an epiphany when someone she barely knows gives her enough bread to fend off starvation. In Feed, the problem is just the opposite: the people in this world are fed too much, and it’s not bread either. It’s information, it’s designed to move merch, and no one can stop it. The one person who tries, a poor brave girl named Violet, pays dearly for her act.

I’d heard of this book for some time, but even so I was shocked when, about halfway through, I checked the pub date: 2002. So Anderson wrote this before Twitter, before Facebook, before half the young people you see on the street are absorbed in their smart phones. The characters in Feed are basically hard-wired into the social stream, bypassing computers, phones, tweeting and texting. You just have to mentally aim a thought at someone, and that person will get it. It’s like mind reading, but it’s monitored, and if you want to be in the Feed not only do you have to get inundated by targeted advertising, you have to be a good consumer—or risk your very life. Big Brother as Mark Zuckerberg, basically.

Feed has no happy ending. The world is falling apart, and the Feed has no answers. The narrator protagonist, a teenager named Titus, struggles to understand what’s going on, and there are moments when the light seems to break through the dark clouds that hover over him. His girlfriend Violet gets it. Her parents are poor but intellectual, and she questions the Feed, but she’s also subject to the baffling whims of a peer culture controlled by it. It’s from her that Titus learns that the country is on the brink of war, that the mysterious lesions everyone seem to be getting may actually not be (I’m not kidding) desirable. But in the end Titus falters, gets high with his clueless friends, and is powerless to help Violet as her malfunctioning Feed takes her down.

The Hunger Games, for all its horrible violence and the price Katniss and others pay for survival, at least ends on a positive note: the Revolution succeeds, and Katniss actually marries and has children. She is a hero. Titus is emphatically not.

So what does Feed have to counterbalance its dreadfulness? In a word, voice. Anderson has created a language for his characters that is at once futuristic and contemporary. Like the iconic Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, Titus pulls us in with a voice so resonant with our culture, so spot-on, that we can’t help respecting its authenticity. Of course authentic doesn’t necessarily mean insightful or meaningful. At times his language is truly pathetic as he tries to find words outside of the futuristic bro talk in which he and his friends are immersed—and which the hovering merchant harpies pick up on for constant commercial yammering inside their heads. We recognize Titus as one of us, which makes his failure more than just a depressing moment but a warning shot across the bow of our collective ship of fools. If we don’t want to founder on the rocks, we’d do well to listen to kids like Titus.

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(Spoiler Alert: I do reveal a few things about this story that would be more fun to read about. However, I do NOT reveal the ending.)

How does time affect who you are? Is the person you were ten years ago just a collection of memories in your mind? Can you find your inner child, or your outer adult? If you and your lover age at different rates, could you still find happiness together?

These are just a few of the questions that meandered through my mind as I read Anna Sheehan’s debut novel, A Long Long Sleep. Ostensibly YA fantasy with a dash of sci-fi, this story defies genres and target audiences. Yes, it contains romance, but it’s not resolved in typical fashion. The narrator is a teenage girl who technically is much older. Much like the novel’s time-bending theme, her voice cuts across age boundaries.

Rosalinda Fitzroy, aka “Sleeping Beauty,” is found in a stasis chamber, where for 60 years she has lain in chemical-induced suspended animation. When she’s awakened by a hunky teenage guy, she finds herself in a world that’s similar to the one she left behind, yet vastly different. Her parents are long dead, and the world has passed through a deadly period of plagues that have killed off most of the world’s population. That world is still dominated by the corporation that Rose’s father ran, though, and Rose finds herself the sole heir to her family’s fortune.

But all is not rosy. Her surrogate parents couldn’t care less about her, her classmates resent her, and the man assigned to shepherd her into her Brave New World is a creepy sleazeball. Even worse, she falls for the hunk who woke her up, and even though he’s obviously attracted to her he keeps her at arm’s length. She escapes into daydreaming about the true love she had before she went into her long sleep, and manages to find some connection to a GM human with alien genes. But then one day a bizarre assassin that’s part corpse, part robot shows up with deadly force and a control collar. As Roselinda struggles to escape from the relentless killer, she learns the shocking truth about her lost parents, her lost love, her lost life…and what she must do to regain her sanity.

While there are a few edge-of-your-seat moments, the strength of Sheehan’s novel lies not in so much in a page-turning plot as in the wonderful way it shows the main character’s response to revelations that threaten to destroy her spiritually. She grows from a docile, psychologically-abused rich girl into someone who learns to face hard facts and deal with ironic age differences (not to mention a psychotic killer zombie robot). The way Sheehan explores her unique blend of frailty and gutsy determination makes this novel a joy to read.

A personal note here: I met Anna at last December’s Big Sur workshop for childrens’ writers (see my previous blog entry, Back from Writer’s Boot Camp). I needed a ride home to Berkeley and she obliged; what followed was an immensely enjoyable 2+hours of conversation—to say that she is an interesting individual is a vast understatement. Since she had a few copies of her novel (Candlewick Press, 2011, 352 pp.) in her car, I bought one and put it on the bottom of my to read list. But once I started it, I didn’t take long to finish. This is one book I’m definitely passing on and recommending to my friends.

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Ender’s Game is one of those legendary novels that refuses to stay in the remainder piles, growing from cult status to being part of the officially-sanctioned kidlit canon. Apparently a movie has been in the works for awhile (http://io9.com/5844789/the-enders-game-movie-puts-out-casting-calls-for-10-characters–including-ender), and Ender fans are just starting to go agog at the possibility. No doubt the novel is excellent—check out my review on Good Reads.

But will Hollywood capture the true essence of the story, which lies not in thrilling space battles, but in probing the psychological essence of young people in groups? (Yes, Ender’s Game stacks up with Lord of the Flies and A Clockwork Orange in that regard.) Given Hollywood’s continuing love affair with CGI, no doubt there will be times when what we see onscreen will be closer to, say, Transformers. I hope not, because their Hive Mentality has a perverse tendency to suck the life out of good sci fi and fantasy (classic example: the horrible treatment given Ursula Leguin’s A Wizard of Earthsea).

On the other hand, there’s LOTR, and of course the Harry Potter films. So let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope Hollywood does Ender justice.

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