Tag Archives: Hunger Games

Mixing It Up

There’s this idea in the publishing world that if you write, say, a mystery novel, it should be strictly a mystery novel. If you follow the tried and true formula, it shouldn’t cavesofsteeleven have a romance subplot. Or, if it does, the person the protagonist is interested in usually disappears between books. (Hmm. Should we be investigating these philandering sleuths to see what they’re doing with their mates when we’re not looking?) Of course, that rule only applies to series characters, for the most part, but it’s part of the genre.

But I digress.

The point is, if you write in a particular genre, you’re supposed to stick to the traditions (tropes?) of that genre. That’s the standard readers expect—according to the publishers, anyway—and if you color outside the lines, you’ll get a lower grade on your homework.

Or will you?

Let’s go back a bit, way back to something like the 1950s and the novel The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov. Asimov wrote this novel in response to John W. Campbell’s assertion that science fiction and mysteries were incompatible, his argument being that, if the writer is already inventing facts the reader can’t know (i.e., a future where technology exists that can do pretty much anything the writer wants it to), then it can’t be a real mystery. Nothing is at stake. Asimov wrote The Caves of Steel, as well as several sequels, to prove his assertion that science fiction could be laid over any other genre and make a good story. On the whole, I’d say he was successful, but you have to keep one thing in mind: The Caves of Steel is still sold as science fiction (if you can find it in a bookstore, that is).

sword edged blondeThe Caves of Steel isn’t the only example, but it’s the one that always pops into my head when I think about mixing it up. I’m reading a fantasy/mystery mashup right now called The Sword-Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe. I’m not sure if that’s the best title ever, but if you’re a fan of the old hard-boiled mysteries like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, but you also like your wizards and magic, check this one out. It’s the first in a series, and it’s shaping up to be a good read that successfully mixes elements from both genres into something new.

And maybe that’s the problem. Maybe that’s why publishers tend not like mashups like this: it results in something new. And we’re talking here about an industry that’s so bipolar it’s not funny. They want the next new thing, the next Twilight, the next Hunger Games, the next whatever-will-sell-like-crazy, and yet they’re always afraid to take chances on new authors. One of the chief reasons indie presses are doing so well right now.

As a reader, I like finding these new things. They aren’t always great discoveries, as I found out with this book (and I’m not the only one), but on the whole, it can be interesting to see how someone else does something like that, even if the end result isn’t always to our liking. You have to cheer them on for slipping one under the publishers’ noses, at the very least.

What about you? You like mixing it up? Or do you prefer your genres to stick to their traditions? Are their exceptions to the rule, or do you see these things as aberrations?

Later,
Gil

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It’s the End of the World as we Know It

One of my favorite sub-genres of sf has always been dystopian fiction. If you’re not familiar with it, think 1984 by George Orwell. That novel presents a bleak future where a totalitarian government micromanages every aspect of peoples’ lives. Having a totalitarian regime of one sort or another seems to be one of the most common elements of dystopian future. Another one is some sort of post-apocalyptic setting where the Earth has become a disaster of one sort or another

 I wish I could find the book now, but I read one back in the 80s—or tried to read one—in which global warming, called the greenhouse effect in those days, had run wild and people were forced to stay indoors most of the time. In order to go outside, you had to put on what was almost a space suit. Acid rain was a constant problem, the temperatures were unbearably hot, and the air was toxic.

I say I tried  to read it because whoever wrote it had done his research. It was a bit like War Day by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka in that respect. But where War Day addressed a limited nuclear exchange, this book was about our climate gone crazy. What was scary about it was the afterword where he told of the things he’d researched that pointed to this as a very possible future. There were actually several aspects of it that were based on things happening in our world, but the one that stuck out to me was the Soviet Union’s rerouting of one of their major rivers (don’t ask me which one. There’s so little about this book that I remember), which the author said would change the way the jet stream flowed and have a major detrimental effect on the weather.

Things like that made this book scary because they were rooted in fact. It’s the only book I’ve ever put down because I just couldn’t stand to finish it. The future it predicted was simply too frightening to contemplate any more. Now, I wish I had the book again, if only to try and read it. Unfortunately, I can’t remember either the title or the author. I even visited a site called Empty World, if I remember correctly, which is a database of post-apocalyptic/dystopian sf novels and movies. I couldn’t find anything that resembled the book and emailed the guy who runs the site, describing the book for him. He didn’t know what it was, either, and since I don’t know title or author, I have no idea how to go about finding it, even in this modern Information Age.

I bring all this up because I listened to a story on the radio about the opening of the movie version of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Its popularity has evidently sparked a dystopian craze among YA novelists to such an extent that, for now at least, it’s replaced the vampire/vampire romance. One pundit said he didn’t believe it would have the long run the vampire genre did (or still does. The latest craze, which I fully support, has been trashing the Twilight setting) because it’s just too bleak. Even the man who bought The Hunger Games said he can’t see it going on forever because, when you finish one of these novels, you want to read something uplifting. Understandable. These books are all bleak and somewhat depressing.

I’ve read The Hunger Games, though I have yet to read the entire trilogy. It’s been so long since I read the first one that I’d probably have to re-read it by now to get the other two.

One series that sparked my interest is written by Patrick Ness. I can’t remember the exact subject matter, but one person in the news article I heard said if you think The Hunger Games is violent you should read this guy’s books. As a crime writer, I’m all about violence, so I may look these books up next time I’m at the library. I’ve been itching to read something sf for a while now, anyway. Just can’t make up my mind what I want to read. A quality space opera would probably work good for me, but this sounds tasty, too.

I did read a post-apocalyptic style novel last week called Supervolcano: Eruption by Harry Turtledove. Mr. Turtledove is known mostly for his alternate history novels, of which I believe he’s considered the master. He has a long series that starts with the Civil War in which someone manages to get some AK-47s to the Confederacy and they fight the North to a standstill. This alternate history progresses up through at least World War II, in which Hitler, Roosevelt and Stalin have to band together to face an alien invasion. Maybe for folks who don’t read sf on a regular basis, these things sound a bit outlandish (and I supposed they are), but his books have been incredibly popular, and he does a ton of research to get the historical details right, as I understand it.

Still, for all that, I have to say that I wasn’t very impressed with Supervolcano: Eruption. The writing itself is good enough. The characters are all smartasses, which got a little old, even if all of us are smartasses in real life. He just seemed to overdo it a little, in my opinion. Essentially, the story revolves around the eruption of the supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park, and since I recently watched a Discovery movie about just that, I decided to read the book. The bottom line on the supervolcano itself is this: it might erupt tomorrow. It might wait thousands of years. It’s had a more or less regular interval of eruptions, the worst of which was a couple million years ago and caused a major extinction event. It’s also blamed for at least one of the Ice Ages, a recent one in which our ancestors almost died off.

All this was interesting, because one of the things I’ve always enjoyed about sf is that I invariably learn something from the best of the genre. Some of it I can’t even grasp (see Robert L. Forward’s Dragon’s Egg novels if you want to read about the higher math involved in the field of astrophysics) and can still enjoy the story itself. I learned some interesting things about the supervolcano in this book, but the story itself was a bit unsatisfying. The worst, for me, was that there was no real resolution. It was hinted that the world was beginning a long, painful recovery, but the major characters were left scattered around the nation (they were all members of the main character’s family in one way or another) with no hint that they might make it back home to California. Mr. Turtledove began several interesting storylines in the novel and then just seemed to lose interest in them.

On the other hand, I just finished a book called The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen. He has a couple other books out I might try, but this is his newest. It combines time travel and dystopian fiction. The main character, Zed, is a Protector. He’s been sent back from the future to protect what’s called the Perfect Present, a future where the world’s problems have all been solved. There’s no hunger or war, none of the problems we put up with in our time. Zed protects this future from hags—historic agitators—who are rebelling against this Perfect Present by trying to alter the past and prevent it from coming about.

Zed has to carry out his duties even if it means hundreds or even thousands of people might die. This includes an event known as The Great Conflagration. The hags tend to want to change some of these Events—that’s how they’re known—while the Protectors make sure history stays on course.

Needless to say, he eventually discovers that the Perfect Present isn’t as perfect as he’s been led to believe and he has to make a choice. The book includes intrigue with the inclusion of a disgraced CIA agent named Leo, an up-and-coming lawyer named Tasha, a repressed Indonesian illegal immigrant named Sari, as well as a cast of spies and various agents from different alphabet agencies.

The action all takes place in Washington, DC, and I won’t give too much of it away. It’s a deep novel, telling stories on several levels. The characters’ lives all intersect in different ways, though some never meet others, or, if they do, it’s late in the novel. Probably the main problem I seemed to have with it was, despite Mr. Mullen writing Zed’s storyline in first-person, present tense and everyone else’s in third-person, past tense, Zed and Leo’s stories had so many similarities (a big theme in this novel) that I sometimes confused the two. But that just may be me. Maybe most other people will be able to keep them separate.

I’m glad to see this kind of thing gaining in popularity. Maybe it’ll mean I can find books to read in this genre. I always wanted to write one, but every attempt I made left me unsatisfied and they died long before they could come close to completion. That’s life, I guess. It seems to me that crime is to be my genre. I’ve damn near pumped out more novels in the past year, year-and-a-half than I have in the rest of my life before that, and the ideas just keep coming at me. I’m halfway through a new Rural Empires novel involving Lyle, the revision of the first one is essentially done, and I have an idea for a fourth in the series. I’d planned to explore the Higgins and Ledbetter families with stand-alone novels about them, but so far it looks like you’ll see them through Lyle’s eyes.

But who knows?

Anyway, go out and get The Revisionists if you like this kind of thing, and you might even give Supervolcano: Eruption a try. Maybe you’ll like the story better than I did.

Later,

Gil

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Keep it Moving, Just Not too Much

I complained once about flash fiction. I don’t remember which post it was, except to say it hasn’t been all that long ago. Call me old-fashioned, but I like a story that I can invest in. Since flash fiction is so short—generally less than a thousand words—I feel like I’m just getting settled in and figuring the character(s) out when it’s over.

Reminds me of eating cotton candy when I was a kid: it looks so sumptuous, but then you take a bite that feels like flavored air, and it melts in your mouth and is gone before you really taste it.

Fluff.

But there’s something to be said for flash fiction: it moves.

I bring this up because of two books I’ve encountered this past week and the realization they brought with them: a story needs to move, but please oh please don’t tell me every movement it makes.

Let’s start with making the story move.

I’m trying out a British author (there’s a clue for ya) named China Miéville, and the book, which I’ve just started, is Perdido Street Station. It shows promise, if you’re into speculative fiction. I’m only to chapter four, but it looks to be a grab bag from sf and fantasy: there are several different races of beings, steampunk is present, along with science, chemistry (which he spells chymistry) and God knows what else.

Let’s make this clear at the outset: I realize it’s unfair to judge a book after reading three chapters. I’ve read some that looked absolutely crappy at that point in the story, but kept at them and, by the end, I was glad I’d read them. Miéville’s prose is good, if a bit thick, so it could get better. Story is very important, and it is a long book—the kind I prefer, as a rule. I’ll have lots of time to get invested in the characters. No flash fiction here.

And I’d probably enjoy it thoroughly if not for the fact I’ve read crime fiction, and I’m aware of the kinds of things readers want these days. In both cases, it’s better to stay somewhat sparse on details. Let the reader fill in the details. Just give ’em a good idea of setting and let their imagination supply the rest.

Here’s a paragraph of description of a being from Perdido Street Station: The great creature stood more than six feet tall, on cruel clawed feet that poked out from under a dirty cloak. The ragged cloth dangled down almost to the ground, draped loosely over every inch of flesh, obscuring the details of physiognomy and musculature, all but the garuda’s head. And that great inscrutable bird face gazed down at Isaac with what looked like imperiosity. Its sharply curved beak was something between a kestrel’s and an owl’s. Sleek feathers faded subtly from ochre to dun to dappled brown. Deep black eyes stared at his own, the iris only a fine mottling at the very edge of the dark. Those eyes were set in orbits which gave the garuda face a permanent sneer, a proud furrow.

Whew!

Well, at least we have a full picture of this garuda being. In fact, he goes on for another paragraph talking about the huge wings the garuda has hidden under the cloak and the descriptions of them Isaac has read. It’s not as long a paragraph, and it leaves you with the unmistakable picture of a sentient bird of prey.

This is the kind of thing sf, and British sf in particular, is known for: long descriptions. On the one hand, they’re somewhat necessary. The author has to give the reader a good picture of beings he’s never seen in real life and likely never will. In most cases, he also needs to convey the alienness (I know, that’s not a real word, but it is a concept, so bear with me here) of the being in question. As a reader, you’re becoming acquainted with something that might never have occurred to you.

British authors are more descriptive than American writers. I think it’s the difference between English and American (we do not speak English here. English and American are all but two different languages). It may also be that English authors are still unduly influenced by the likes of Dickens and Shakespeare. Nothing wrong with that per se, but there is a difference in writing styles. Many American Victorian era authors write the same way. I once tried to read The House of Seven Gables, but gave up when Nathaniel Hawthorne spent the first chapter describing the damned house, leaving me wondering when the story was gonna start.

In short, the story itself doesn’t move very fast. I remember reading a review of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, in which the reviewer (and I wish I could remember who it was to give credit) said that one of the things The Hunger Games did that every novel should was introduce the main plot by the end of the Chapter 1. In fact, this might not have been so much a review as an example in a How-To on writing. I’ll say more about The Hunger Games in a bit.

The next book up for consideration is The Buntline Special by Mike Resnick.

The Buntline Special is a Weird Western, and Mike Resnick is an old hand at sf. I learned of him back in the ’90s with his book Paradise, a novel of an Africa-like planet and its exploitation. Mr. Resnick is, as a rule, the kind of author who starts right out with action, and The Buntline Special is no exception. The central character is Doc Holliday, who is traveling to Tombstone at the behest of his friend Wyatt Earp. In this alternate reality, the US stops at the Mississippi River due to the strength of the Indians’ magic, and because of Geronimo and Hook Nose, a Cheyenne medicine man, in particular. Both are exceptionally strong, though they have yet to join forces.

It turns out that Tombstone is the only country in the world to have electric lighting, thanks to Thomas Edison. However, it seems that Geronimo is afraid Edison will find a way to counter his magic, so he has put Edison’s life in danger by motivating the Clanton gang, called the Cowboys, to kill him. The Earps have called in Holliday and Bat Masterson to help them, but Masterson ends up being a liability when Geronimo puts a curse on him.

It’s an interesting concept. Weird West tales are gaining in popularity, and I picked up this book partly because I’d like to write a Weird Western, partly because I’m a Resnick fan.

Unlike Perdido Street Station, The Buntline Special (yes, Ned Buntline is also in the book, but I didn’t want to get too detailed in my synopsis) moves. Description is sparse, just enough to give you the setting without weighing you down with details. Until, that is, the author starts telling you what his characters are doing. Time after time, we’re told in detail what they’re doing. Here’s a short example: Morgan got up, walked to an adjoining room, and returned a moment later with a chair.

Isn’t that nice?

I hate to be sarcastic, especially toward an author who’s won numerous awards and been in the business longer than I’ve been alive. But couldn’t he just say Morgan got a chair from another room or Morgan went to the next room over and retrieved a chair, something like that? Why do you have to tell me he got up, walked to the other room and returned with the chair? Isn’t that implied in my renderings? I realize mine are rough because I composed them on the fly, but they get the point across.

If this was the only or one of the few times Mr. Resnick does this in his book, I wouldn’t complain, but he does it numerous times, telling me in one instance that a character walks through the kitchen, out through the parlor, and onto the street. Why not just tell me he went out to the street? I’m smart enough to know he has to go through the kitchen (the room he was already in, by the way), across the parlor and out the door to get to the street. I’ve left a house, too, you know.

I mentioned before that long description—and lets’ face it, Mr. Resnick’s are long descriptions, even if they’re short sentences—is a forte of sf. I think many sf readers revel in the stuff, and since I’ve started reading crime, I’ve become somewhat impatient with it. One thing to keep in mind is the different conventions genres use. What’s acceptable in one will never fly in another.

The Hunger Games finds a comfortable niche in between these two books. In fact, it argues for some sf authors maybe taking some lessons from YA writers. Hunger Games is Young Adult but, like the Harry Potter books, is appropriate for adults. It doesn’t weigh you down with description, and you’ve got a good idea of the world and the plot by the end of the first chapter, as I’ve mentioned. You don’t know all the details, of course. If you did, the rest of the novel would be a waste of time.

The Hunger Games takes me back to what I consider good science fiction: an intriguing setting that lends itself to the story, rather than a weak story that’s there just to take me through loving descriptions of the setting. Unlike the paragraph I quoted above. Ms. Collins doesn’t use 124 words to describe a single character. She gets on with the story.

And isn’t that why we read in the first place? Isn’t that why authors should write, to tell the story? Why get wrapped up in words? If you want to do that, go write poetry. That’s what poetry’s all about, in a way.

Make your story move, just don’t tell me every move it makes.

Later,

Gil

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