Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Kingdom: A Fresh Take on Zombies

South Korean filmmakers have featured zombies on multiple occasions, as the linked page shows. Yet their newest edition of a zombie story on Netflix, The Kingdom, has some aspects you won't see in a zombie feature produced in the United States. First, it's got an aspect of political intrigue that leaks over into moral commentary that I'll talk about in a bit. Second, it's a period piece, set roughly in the year 1600 in Korea. And third, its take on zombies is different from anything I've seen before.

I've only seen the first four episodes of the first season as of the moment of writing this post, so I can't possibly give away how season one ends, nor can I say anything at all about season two, which Netflix recently released. However, if you don't want to know anything at all about this series before watching it, skip this post, because I will talk about some general aspects and background of the story.

Different Zombies


The origin of the idea of a zombie comes to the world from Haiti, where legend was that supernatural power could reanimate a body and give it generalized invulnerability to harm--other than an attack to its head. Zombies in their first iterations and infamously as featured on The Walking Dead, are slow, lumbering, and stupid beasts, whose main means of killing someone stems from their ability to silently lurk almost anywhere and from the fact that once they start coming after you, they never need to stop to rest, nor do they even seem to need to eat, even though they're continually biting any human being they can.

A major part of the fear behind this "classic" version of a zombie is the fear of becoming one. I'd say that fear links to the fear of death itself, because just as dead bodies rot in the grave, zombies a-la The Walking Dead rot as they shuffle around, decay as they move forward, having the appearance of people you once knew and loved, but have lost all the inner qualities that once defined them. Which is very much along the lines of how people who do not believe in life after death feel about dead bodies--they are nothing more than rotting meat, reminding us that death is eventually coming for us all.

South Korean zombies tap into a different fear. The fear of being attacked by a viscous predator. South Korean zombies are a lot more dangerous than those of The Walking Dead or other "classic" portrayals of zombies.

Korean films like Train to Busan and the series The Kingdom aren't entirely unique in this regard. World War Z seems to have answered the question, "How could zombies really take over the world if they're so slow and stupid?" by making them sprint at incredible speeds and having a single bite from a zombie rapidly convert a regular person into a zombie as well. Zombies even scale walls in WWZ and as a result collectively act with at least rudimentary problem-solving skills.

Zombies in The Kingdom also sprint. Though no faster than a regular person can run, unlike WWZ. And the conversion process changes in the episodes I've seen. At first, it required some time, a number of hours, like The Walking Dead. But soon the situation changes and people after a single bite become a zombie within seconds, like World War Z.

As a traditional Korean doctor featured in the story observes, "the sickness has changed." Which is how becoming a zombie is portrayed in The Kingdom, as an illness, like most modern zombie films show it.

However, the first case of the illness seems to have been caused by an herb Korean physicians in the story believed would raise a person from the dead. It did, but not in the way they intended--which shows an aspect of "science gone wrong" in this story. Though set in Korea circa 1600.

Note that as a sickness, the behavior of zombies makes somewhat more sense than either World War Z or The Walking Dead, while striking a note out of vampire tales. Zombies in The Kingdom only come out at night. As the sun rises, they seek dark places to hide themselves, becoming as comatose as a dead body. Until night comes again.  As if they really are metabolically alive and need to rest--just as they need to eat.

These zombies often eat people alive, even as the person being eaten is rapidly becoming a zombie. The Kingdom shows zombies as ravenously hungry, not just for brains as in Romero's The Night of the Living Dead or Z Nation, but to eat an entire person whole, yes, like The Walking Dead at times, but eating much more quickly. As if these zombies are like ravenous lions, tigers, or bears (oh my :) ). Instead of decaying human beings.

Set in 1600 Korea


The exact year hasn't been given in the story, but it occurs only a few years after a Japanese invasion of Korea that was finally repulsed in 1598, which is referenced multiple times. In fact, at first, the story seems to be only a period piece set in Korea circa 1600. The first episode shows traditional doctors performing their ordinary work, Confucian scholars worried about who will run the kingdom in the aftermath of the Japanese invasion, the nobles also reacting to that situation, and the Crown Prince Lee Chang going about the business of being the equivalent of a Vice President, someone who will take over the government but only if the current leader dies. It's a bit of a slow burn in the first episode, the first zombies not appearing until near the end.

The portrayal of Korea's past at first seems meticulously correct in all details and the costumes in particular are striking. But then the zombie plague happens, which throws away the strict attention to history that begins The Kingdom.

The setting is cool in that most people in the story don't have weapons at all, and even those who do are often limited to swords and bows and arrows--though a handful of muskets are in the story as well. Would you want to fight a horde of super-aggressive zombies with nothing better than a sword or a musket? Me, neither.
Peasant veteran of the war with Japan running from zombies.
Image copyright: Netflix

The peasant veteran of the war with Japan running from the zombie horde. Image copyright: Netflix.

Note though that this tale is not the only Korean zombie apocalypse set in the historic past! The 2018 movie Rampant (which I have not seen) apparently comes from around the same time period.

Political Intrigue


The Crown Prince Lee Chang (played by Ju Ji-hoon) seems to be involved in an ordinary plot to assume his place as king after word of the death of his father leaks out. Because if a new heir is born to the current queen, his life will be worth nothing (because his mother was not a queen). But then the story reveals that the claims to his father still being alive are based on him having become a zombie...
The king may "live" forever!
Image copyright: Netflix

The struggle between the First Minister Cho Hak-ju (portrayed by Ryu Seung-ryong), who is behind the plot to keep the king "alive," and the Crown Prince form the basis of the story's political intrigue. Though in general, the nobles support Cho Hak-ju, while Lee Chang's supporters are mostly peasants.

Bad Nobles, Good Prince


The upper crust of Korean society are shown as nonchalantly caring only about themselves, condemning ordinary people to death through both inaction and selfish acts. With the exception of Lee Chang, who at first seems rather selfish, but quickly transforms into a self-sacrificing leader, who is doing everything he can to save his people, all his people, from the zombie apocalypse.

This underpins the moral framework of the story. While others long to have power for their own benefit and enjoyment, the Crown Prince becomes a deeply caring and self-sacrificing war leader as the zombies attack. While a group of nobles flee in a half-empty ship, leaving the peasants to their doom, Lee Chang herds them into a walled compound and does everything he can to protect them. Even giving up his personal food rations, so ordinary people could have something to eat.

In fact, food, that the peasants hardly have any while nobles eat at their leisure, while everyone is being chased by ravenous zombies, makes hunger and the menace it poses a much more important part of this story that what you usually see in zombie tales.

Note the prince's personal bodyguard, a female doctor played by Bae Doo-na (who I know from Cloud Atlas), and an enigmatic peasant who fought against the Japanese round out the group of "good guys" who seek to cure the zombie sickness, keep the people alive, and avoid the troops sent by Cho Hak-ju to kill Lee Chang.
On the left is the woman doctor, on the right, the Crown Prince
Image copyright: Netflix

Name Trivia


By the way, the name of this series in Korean is 킹덤, which is approximately pronounced as..."Kingdom"!

So the English word "kingdom" is the basis for the series name, though written in Korean writing (Hangul) in the South Korean version. A bit of trivia I found interesting.

Conclusion


I may have more to say about this story later on, but for now, while it does share with other zombie tales some normalizing gore and can be genuinely frightening at moments, this story so far for the most part qualifies as clean fiction. Another potential negative point is it also in general shows people as oddly irreligious, at least so far, even when facing predatory zombies. Which I would say is not a strictly realistic portrayal of human nature--most human beings, including in pre-Christian Korea, have prayed or otherwise sought supernatural help in the real world, especially in times of severe crisis.

But the portrayal of a self-sacrificing and compassionate leader dedicated to the lives of all his people, not just those of his social class, forms a strong moral positive to this tale. That portrayal, along with the sheer fun of zombies so different from what you may be used to and the things people must do to survive, makes this series worth recommending.

How about you, readers--have you seen any South Korean zombie films? In particular, have any of you seen both Rampant and also The Kingdom? I'd be interested in your perspective of what make them different from one another. Or how zombie films are different in Korea in general, including what you do or do not like about them. Other thoughts?

(By the way, I've recorded a podcast that goes over the same content as this post. Here's the link to it:
https://travissbigidea.podbean.com/e/the-kingdom-a-fresh-take-on-zombies/)

Thursday, March 19, 2020

A Look At Fatalism and a Killer Virus in Twelve Monkeys

Twelve Monkeys (or 12 Monkeys) is both the title of a 1995 film and also a 47 episode SyFy channel TV series that debuted in January of 2015 and ended in 2018. A caveat to my post here is that I’ve seen the 1995 movie though not the series and will mainly talk about the film, though I’m familiar with the series and will reference how its view of fatalism is different from its source material. Both the film and the series feature a virus that wipes out the vast majority of humanity. And both ponder the issue of whether it’s really possible to change fate. I’ll talk about what I believe the Bible has to say on that topic near the end.


By the way, some spoilers about the film are in this article–in case you’ve never seen it and were hoping to be surprised. (But that was 25 years ago–surely you’ve seen it by now, right? 🙂 )

Cassandra

Both versions of 12 Monkeys do something all my favorite science fiction does; they use the lives of characters to illustrate ideas, to deliberately get the viewer to thinking about what’s actually true. But pondering the nature of fate isn’t new with Twelve Monkeys, in fact, both stories make deliberate reference to the ancient Greek myth of Cassandra in the name of one of the main characters, Cassandra “Cassie” Railly. The myth of Cassandra, for those who may not be familiar with it, features the title figure of the myth being given the ability to accurately see the future by the god Apollo–but because she would not take the Pagan deity as her lover, he also cursed her so that no one would ever believe her prophecies of inevitable tragedy to come (her visions concerned the fall of Troy, by the way).

La Jetée

But Twelve Monkeys has a much more recent predecessor than Cassandra. Chris Marker in 1962 produced a short film in French called La Jetéewhich featured a central plot very similar to the 12 Monkeys movie. La Jetée is a time travel story from a post-apocalyptic (and rather dystopian) future, back to the past for the purpose of averting the apocalypse if possible. La Jetée by the way means “the jetty” as in a pier, but in French it can also be used to describe an observation platform–in this case it refers to such a platform in an airport, where a young version of the main character witnesses the inevitable demise of his older, time-traveling self. Note the French name of the film also sounds like là j’étais, which means “there I was” or “there I used to be,” the title serving as a play on words referring to time travel.


La Jettee poster. Image Source: Wikipedia

The story in La Jetée is a told by a voice-over narrator while what’s shown is a photo-montage. The overall presentation is très artistique in a style rather uniquely French that did not carry over very much to the American film it inspired. By the way, as a university student studying foreign languages (at that time, Spanish, French, and German), I took a French literature class circa 1993 in which I watched La Jetée. I liked it very much, though I falsely concluded based on the name “Marker” than the man who produced it must not have been French (he was: born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve, who took the pen name “Marker” based on “magic markers”).
Note the apocalypse featured in La Jetée was a nuclear holocaust. The main similarity with Twelve Monkeys was the time traveling central figure in the story, who was a prisoner in his own time, whose strong memory of a woman he saw as a child helped him to make it back to the right time period. Emotionally, La Jetée is a tragic love story of a man finding a woman burned into his memory and the two of them falling in love, with him inevitably dying in the process. Though intellectually, the plot’s firmly about fate and it denies any ability of anyone to change the past. Fate is what fate is.

The Virus

The American film aimed for the exact same emotional and intellectual beats as La Jetée, even though presented in a standard movie format, with major Hollywood stars–including Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Brad Pitt. It did offer one major change, though. In 1995, shortly after the end of the Cold War, it seemed that a nuclear apocalypse was highly unlikely (in reality it still can happen and still could have happened), so the plot featured a genetically-engineered killer virus that wipes out most of the human race, instead of a massive nuclear war.



The protagonist and his love interest. Image copyright: Universal Pictures
The film made it seem the virus would be deliberately released by a mentally unstable son (Brad Pitt) of a prominent virologist (Christopher Plummer), because of his radical environmental ideas and a disdain for humanity. The unstable son’s activist group he called “the army of the twelve monkeys,” hence the name of the movie in English. (Plot twist: the lunatic son only wanted to release monkeys held to test viruses and put his father in a cage, whereas a serious, stable, but ideologically-driven colleague of the virologist was in fact the one who deliberately released the virus.)


What’s interesting at the moment of writing this post is the movie’s almost-by-accident prediction that a deadly virus could become a such a powerful threat to the survival of humanity.

The protagonist meets the lunatic.
Image copyright: Universal Pictures
Could a single virus really threaten the whole human race as portrayed in Twelve Monkeys? Probably not, because a deadly virus provokes public health responses aimed at isolating the infection, as we’re seeing happen now.

But could a powerful virus disrupt the human race and change it forever? Why, yes, at least to a degree. We’re disrupted right now. Though the changes won’t last forever and may not even have much of an effect even one year from now.


But then again, even though no human being really knows the future, it’s probably safe to predict other international viral pandemics will take place. The question is simply where and when and how large the effects will be. With the related question of how human beings will react to these threats.

Viral Fate

So is death by deadly virus part of the inevitable fate of the human race? Is this something we should fear? Would this be worse if someone did this on purpose?
David Morse as the scientist who deliberately releases the virus.
Image copyright: Universal Pictures
I’ve pretty much already said, “no” to all my rhetorical questions, but clarify my position a bit, viruses have to maintain their host alive to spread. The deadlier a virus is, even if it’s very contagious as in aggressively attacking people, the deadliness of the virus works against it spreading. Because dead people don’t get around much! Meaning they don’t actively spread viruses. So outbreaks of extremely deadly viruses tend to hit a certain local area hard, but when people are dying there in mass numbers, people cut off travel to the infectious area so that the area of impact isn’t majorly international. This is how Ebola has been.

Viruses not as deadly generally spread much more easily, especially if some people carry the virus but don’t show symptoms. Which is how Covid 19 works. But of course Covid is deadly enough to require efforts to contain its spread.


Since it’s rather built into the nature of viruses that they by themselves can’t wipe out 99% of the human race, even if a human being were to jigger with them, I would say we should not be in terror of viruses, even though viruses are going to keep popping up. Though it makes sense to take reasonable precautions. Such as washing your hands. And following other guidance given out by public health officials.

Fate Fate

But wait a minute–don’t we Christians believe God knows the future? This is established in the Bible in many places, for example, Isaiah 46:10. Don’t we believe God even has determined in advance when we will die? Among other passages, reference Hebrews 9:27 for this doctrine. So why should we try to prevent our own deaths if that’s already been determined?

Could it be that like La Jetée or Twelve Monkeys we can try to change how events turn out, but in the end, what’s going to happen is what’s going to happen? So we actually have no power to change our own destiny?


Note that the TV Series Twelve Monkeys takes a different approach about changing the past via time travel, i.e. changing fate. In the series, changing fate is not impossible. It’s just very, very difficult (for an explanation, look under Development in the linked article about the series).


So which of the two 12 Monkeys views is correct? Is it possible to change our destiny, but difficult? Or is it impossible?


C.S. Lewis, so brilliant in so many things, offered an opinion of sorts on this subject in story form. In Prince Caspian he has Aslan tell Lucy when she asks what would have happened had they obeyed him better: “To know what would have happened, child?…No, nobody is ever told that.” Which would seem to imply that the choices we actually make are the only ones that really matter. As if choices we didn’t make could not have ever really happened. As if everything we do is already pre-determined.


By the way, I’m not saying Lewis believed human actions were all pre-determined. Just that the one particular bit of dialogue in Prince Caspian sounds that way. In general, Christians have rejected complete pre-determination and have maintained human will must somehow include real choices, or  much of our Christian practice would make no sense. Such as sharing the Gospel in hopes that some will believe.


Though of course some Christians have believed that God pre-determined all actions anyone could take. Though such a position is more a characteristic of people with a deterministic and cause-and-effect view of the universe acting strictly according to natural law, without direct intervention by God. Deist Albert Einstein was and atheist Sam Harris is a strong supporter of total determinism of human actions.

The Bible on What Could Have Happened

Surprisingly, Lewis seems to have goofed when he had Alan tell Lucy nobody is told what would have happened. Because the Bible records in I Samuel 23:9-13 that when David was fleeing from King Saul and occupied the town of Keilah, that the men of the city would turn him over to Saul. So David packed up and left the city–and was never turned over. So David was told what would have happened, even though it didn’t happen.

So the Bible seems to play it both ways–it declares God knows all things and has established what will happen. Yet it calls on us to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven–indicating it isn’t being done that way now.


It would seem the Bible supports the idea that changing the past would be possible, if we ever got a time machine and had the opportunity to try. Though I suspect it might be difficult.


But can we make real choices? Can we in effect change our fate? It certainly seems we can–or why else would David have been told what would have happened?

Conclusion

So since what you do matters, wash your hands and take some reasonable precautions versus Covid 19. 🙂

As for Twelve Monkeys, have you seen it? I’d especially be interested in hearing the thoughts of people who’ve both seen the movie and the TV series.


Are there other sci fi stories that talk about fate in the context of a viral pandemic? Or other time travel stories you’d recommend?

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Beyond the VEIL, Entangled with a Faun, an Experiment in Romance

The cover for my romance book...
A cover I helped make (I'm responsible
for the image of the main character,
which I created by combining
other images, the rest by Virginia McKevitt.)
As a writer and publisher of science fiction and fantasy and on occasion, horror, I know numerous other authors who write genres I don't write. Including romance.

A friend of mine, Parker J. Cole, informed me back perhaps in August of a project she and another romance writer (Lynn Donovan) were working with a couple of science fiction/fantasy authors Tom Bruno and Britt Mooney (note Kerry Nietz also expressed interest in maybe writing a future novel in this series, but hasn't written one as of now) to create a series of stories that are a hybrid of fantasy, science fiction, and romance. Though mainly romance.

I actually thought it might be interesting to participate. Yes, I volunteered myself to help write in a genre I neither read nor write--romance!

To be frank, it wasn't just because I wanted the opportunity to do something I hadn't done before and because I had already worked with Parker on the Beatitudes and Woes anthology I published this year (and working with Parker was a great experience). It was also because I've heard how much better romance sells than the genres I usually write and I was hoping for some of those romance dollars.

I didn't realize what I was getting myself into.

Note I'm not mainly a novelist, at least not at this point in my life I'm not. I've written some non-fiction and short fiction. I also have two novels I've written that are currently unpublished but are planned for release in 2020 (the first of these, The Crystal Doorway, I hope to have read in early January, just a few weeks away from my time of writing). So this is only my third novel--and it's by far my shortest. But I had a very hard time writing it.

For my fellow authors, you know that thing you do when you write a story in which you include elements that you like yourself as a reader? Because you know what you like, therefore you use that to build a story you hope others will also enjoy? Yeah, now imagine doing that for a genre you don't even read. Not easy!

The thing though is I thought it would be easy. I like stories with romantic elements. For example, I really like The Princess Bride. (This romance novel, Entangled with a Faun, drops some Princess Bride references, by the way.) I've even read some science fiction with romantic elements, like the short stories by classic sci-fi writer Stanley Weinbaum.

But perhaps the biggest difference between stories I'd read and the genre I decided to try to write is in the stories I've read with romantic elements, they generally wind up in the background. The focus is on other things and eventually, through hardship and trials, a male and female character realize at the end of the story that they are in love. That's romance, right?

As I've found out, actually no. That isn't romance.

Well, what I thought was romance is actually "romance-ish," or "romance-eque" maybe. Not totally wrong, but not close to right either. Because romance--well, clean romance anyway--is a genre about flirting. (Or at least that's what I think it's about, having written it once.)

And I made a horrible mistake right up front with my romance--to flirt, characters needed to be together. Sort of like a buddy cop movie, but instead of teasing each other, they flirt with each other. Until eventually the flirtation becomes a serious relationship. With the romance reader reading the flirtation a bit like I would combat scenes--"oh, that was close!" "almost lost it there!" "barely escaped that one!" "oh, I know he's gonna fall, but when?" So the beats of action and escape that relate to survival of characters in the kind of fiction I read is replaced by beats of emotional closeness or separation and swirling passion and pangs of the heart.

But, I'm off track--I should be talking about my mistake. My mistake was that I picked a male and female lead as part of a group of authors and also picked characters who spend little time together. She, the county sheriff, he the town librarian. A sheriff and a deputy or the sheriff and the FBI or something like that would have been a better choice, because the characters could naturally be together a lot. (Note, the group thing was a problem because once I'd committed myself I couldn't change characters since they were incorporated into other people's books.)

So I had to wrestle with how romance can happen with people who don't see each other very much. Of course they think about each other. They call--or don't call. There's an occurrence of flowers being sent off (see how personal I made that sound :) ). And a few other things, like brief visits. I had to work to make it plausible, and to my genuine surprise, it actually seems to have worked.

Though my story also has strong non-romance elements. There was just no way getting around it for me. I spend a little bit of time in the fantasy world and couldn't help writing some odd things there--it's what I do. I also made an action scene--in which there's real live shooting ongoing. Cause I'm very familiar with that stuff. Though I also wrote a showdown in which my main character, Lucy Spotted Wolf, is ganged up on in a conversation and made to feel very low, which is not something I would normally write.

My story wound up with two main tensions--one being a general lack of respect that Lucy faces in her work, where some treat law enforcement as a "boys-only club. The other being her sense of isolation in a small, mostly white town, coupled with loneliness as a woman who has been burned by men in past romantic relationships and who has steered away from things that hurt her emotionally.

Lucy has two encounters with fantasy creatures who cross over from another universe--one threatens her life, the other winds up entangled with her and her love interest and brings back to her a sense of whimsy and joy, helping restore her childhood love of fantasy that she felt for Narnia. So my book has not just one, but two separate resolutions to these issues (one right after the other).

And after I had gone through feeling incompetent and wanting to quit and doubting that I could ever write anything, let alone romance and certainly not this tale, I found myself reading back over the ending of the story I'd created with an astonishing warm glow of satisfaction. Hey that was actually really good!

I think I actually managed a mostly satisfying romance (with a lot of help from Parker J. Cole) with a really strong ending. And a good other story, too, with its own quite satisfying ending.

That's easy for me to say, of course, and it's always so possible for any author to be blind about his or her own writing. But my experience really was one of surprise--I thought I was sunk by this project and worried for a while that I would never be able to finish the story. But when I finished it, I read back over it and thought, "Hey, this is actually good! Wow!"

I actually don't feel embarrassed to recommend this book--and I was wondering about that for a while. It's a quick read and I think one that most readers will actually enjoy--even if you are a fantasy fan and not a romance fan. Or even if you are a romance fan and don't care that much about fantasy.  And I am so surprised to be telling you that! (And I'm telling you, I would not say so unless I thought so.)

As you will have noticed from my post, my book is also part of a series of stories, which includes a prologue and books 2, and 3. These other stories fill in the background for my tale and make it make sense.

Here's a link to the Prologue book (a.k.a book 1) on Amazon, written by Tom and Lynn: https://www.amazon.com/Beyond-VEIL-Prologue-Thomas-Bruno-ebook/dp/B07YYMCJMD

To book 2, by Tom Bruno: https://www.amazon.com/Entangled-Shade-Beyond-VEIL-Book-ebook/dp/B081BDLGMG

To book 3, by Lynn Donovan: https://www.amazon.com/Entangled-Faeries-Beyond-VEIL-Book-ebook/dp/B081HYB318

And finally, to my book, published as of the same date I'm writing this post (Dec 24th, 2019). Note it's a FREE read if you are an Amazon Prime member:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08339BFYG

Anyway, I hope you like the way the story wrapped up as much as I did! If you read it, write me a review and feel free to comment here about it.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Beatitudes and Woes: On the Power of Simple Ideas

I'm going to talk about a story anthology I've had the good fortune to work on, but I'll get to that in a bit. First I'm going to talk about some bigger ideas (which is what this blog focuses on, after all) and work my way to the new book after a bit.

So let me start out by noting that sometimes innovative ideas are complex and mind-blowing. Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are like that--it takes mental work to wrap your head around the way these principles of physics really work...and you can never be fully confident, especially with Quantum Mechanics, that you really do get what's going on.

But there are other ideas that immediately strike everybody--well, almost everybody--as great ideas. Such notions hit people with the feeling, "Why didn't anyone think of that before?"

Such putting meat or cheese between two slices of bread and eating it that way--believe it or not, there was a time nobody did that. In Ancient Rome, for example, you might take a hunk of bread and bite it when you still had a bite of meat in your mouth--but slicing the bread and meat and slapping them together as one product was something people simply did not do.

And think just how much the idea of a sandwich, as simple as it is, has transformed modern life. How many businesses it has built. How many meals it has changed. (To include its stepchild the hamburger. And the cheeseburger.)

A more personal example of this kind of simple idea making a huge difference in life comes from Afghanistan, where I was part of a US Army Civil Affairs Team that funded development projects in Afghan-land. One of the things we brought to rural, unelectrified villages were solar-powered street lamps. During the day sunlight powered up the lamps to provide 3 or 4 hours of light after dark--and such light was hugely popular in rural Afghanistan. The lights were so much superior to the kinds of lamps they had before and therefore transformed the way people lived, allowing them to stay out after dark in a way they'd never been able to do ever before.

Ditto cell phones in the same country and also in rural zones of East Africa where I served. A solar-powered charger and a cell phone allowed unelectrified, unconnected villages to suddenly transform into having immediate communication with the wider world.

I'm not trying to downplay the complex technology involved in building solar panels, mobile phone displays and computer chips, or the radio technology behind the towers cell phones use. But when presented to the user, the idea is simple enough--want to be able to contact people untold distances away for a relatively cheap price? Yeah, everybody could see that was a better way to do things. And everyone who could afford to do so got a cell phone and put it to use.

Likewise, this story collection I've had the good fortune to edit and now publish has that kind of idea contained with it. Or one that certainly strikes me that way.

On nine occasions in a row in Matthew chapter 5 (yes, of the Bible, of the Christian New Testament :) ), Jesus said "blessed are" and then told who the blessed are and why. The merciful. The peacemakers. Etc.

And four times in Luke 6 Jesus said something similar, but opposite. These statements started with "woe to," such as "them who laugh now." Or are rich now. Etc.

The "blessed be" statements are commonly called "beatitudes" by English-speaking Christians (mentioning that in case you didn't know, which might apply especially if your first language isn't English, since I have at least a few readers from all around the world). And the other statements, the negative ones, are of course, "woes."

So here's the idea--what if a group Christian authors wrote a speculative fiction short story that illustrated or was inspired by each of the nine beatitudes and each of the four woes? Wait a minute, wait a minute--Christian authors can use verses of the Bible in Biblical order specifically to inspire a set of short stories? Short stories linked to each verse? Why didn't anyone ever think of that before!

Note I've found out after talking about this book on another site that some other people in fact did think of this idea before--or something very similar. But this notion still isn't too common. And I think it should be.

Jesus illustrated many spiritual principles with stories, a.k.a. parables. Why shouldn't Christian writers of fiction also use stories inspired by Scripture, not as parables per se, but as original, interesting stories, which still work their way around to being about the verse(s) the stories were drawn from?

And why not speculative fiction? Science fiction and fantasy look at the world as it isn't but as we can imagine that it could be. And many parts of the Bible, including especially the beatitudes and woes, talk about the world not as it is now, but as it will be in the future, a time we don't and can't completely know--but which we can speculate about. And we can also use our power of speculation to make points that more down-to-earth fiction would struggle to express. Yeah, speculative fiction is perfect for this.

The lovely cover of the Beatitudes and Woes
anthology.
Which led me to think: Wow--this should be a regular thing, a common thing. This is such a great idea that Christian writers should be doing it all the time!

Oh, by the way, it wasn't me that came up with this idea. It was a friend and fellow author, C.W. Briar who suggested it. And on a Facebook group a bunch of Christian authors piled in, volunteered, and wrote stories which I edited with the help of my friend Cindy Koepp. And I directed this work into getting a really good cover and all that vital stuff and voila! (After almost 6 months of work, here we are, a new short story anthology is born.)

This post likely (God willing) will be active long after the release of this book, but today, the day of my writing this post, there's going to be a "release party" online on Saturday, July 13th (in honor of the 13 authors), in which we announce the book is ready for the world and give out prizes and such. Search for it on Facebook (Beatitudes and Woes release party) if you're interested. (And I think you should be interested--it will be worth your time for the prizes alone.)

Also of course if you are interested, buy the book--as of this moment the Kindle version is available for pre-order (and as of tomorrow the same link will bring you to the page to buy the book immediately).

But even more than grabbing up for yourself what is (I think) an expression of a powerful and simple idea that is going to amaze and amuse you in so many ways, consider the idea behind the book. Using Bible verses in a row as focal points for a series of stories. That's brilliant, even though it's simple--if you're a Christian writer of fiction, maybe you should consider using the same method yourself!


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Saturday, December 16, 2017

Star Wars The Last Jedi: Rebellion upon rebellion


I happened to see Star Wars, The Last Jedi yesterday in a very clean and inexpensive theater in Monterrey, Mexico (just here for a short time this trip). Watching a moving in the United States increasingly seems like a waste of money, but I digress from my point...which is commentary on the movie itself.

While I am going to commit some SPOILERS they will be of a general nature. I am not going to reveal how the story ends or some of the key bits of information the tale gives out. I do share some story details, but deliberately out of context. And while this is also a general review, I am going to focus on one aspect of the story that caught my attention that may not be the first thing most people think of with this movie.

Note that I had several problems with Episode Seven that I hoped this movie would not repeat. I felt The Force Awakens 1) copied far too much from the Star Wars A New Hope, 2) presented an insufficiently powerful villain in Kylo Ren, 3) an over-powered new character in Rey--she should not have been victorious so easily in my view, 4) and sometimes just did not make any sense. Why did R2D2 sleep until the end? How did Poe reappear after disappearing? Why did the First Order gain so much power in the first place? (and plenty of other issues)

The Last Jedi addressed these concerns of mine pretty well, as if the producers had listened to some of their critics (I was far from the only person to be concerned about the things I just mentioned). While the story has some elements that resonate with familiarity to what happened in Empire Strikes Back, this movie is far, far, different from that tale. Kylo Ren got stronger by the end but paid some consequences for screwing up prior to that. Rey was still super powerful for someone completely untrained, but in some ways showed some more limitations and vulnerabilities, which I thought was good for her character development. Though, yes, the story still makes no sense at times, but improved in that department when compared to The Force Awakens.

Though you do see some things that make no sense. Like bombers being used in orbit...um, think about that for a minute...why is a bomber not going to work in space?...er...yeah. Or how could they be so sure that only one ship was tracking them? How would they know? And how would they know the ONLY way to get filthy rich is to sell weapons? Er, since when? And some other things.

But for once a harebrained attack idea actually totally failed and the replacement plan nearly totally failed as well. Which is more realistic than Star Wars has been before. So I saw that as improvement.

I would say as a negative criticism that this story did not have the strong emotional resonance with me that The Empire Strikes Back did. But it had some high moments, including especially Luke Skywalker finally doing something to help the other characters in their dire situation. 

Overall, it proved to be an entertaining movie. A pretty good story. Not really great in my book, but definitely worth seeing.

One thing that struck me about the story though is that on both the First Order side and among the Resistance, the younger, more impulsive types were continually rebelling against their older superiors. As in not following orders. Or even more so, actively overthrowing those in power.

And that mostly worked for the younger characters. I mean, they faced few consequences of their actions. Generally, they wound up in greater positions of trust AFTER resisting authority than they had been beforehand. Poe disobeying General Organa went the worst...as did his later actions against the female commander who replaced her temporarily. But still, in the end, he is seen as a leader and is followed. Everyone respects him. He does not really feel much guilt about his actions and suffers no serious consequences.

Rey does not really need Luke (though Luke does not prove to be totally useless in the story). Kylo resists Snoke. Fin battles Captain Phasma, his former commander. Pretty much in every case it all works out for the good for these characters. Rebellion is rewarded, even though the BIG rebellion, the Resistance itself, does not do very well in the confines of this movie.

It might seem I am nit-picking here, but consider how different this was to what happened in Empire Strikes Back. Luke Skywalker, though likable, was in fact a bit of an ignoramus who needed some stern discipline on the part of Yoda in order to even begin to straighten out. The master knew more than the pupil, as was also true when Luke learned from Obi Wan. 

When Luke rushed off early to face Darth Vader, fans seeing the conflict for the first time could hope Luke could pull off a victory, but he in fact failed rather miserably, losing his hand, NOT saving his friends, only spared by Vader due to a terrible truth he was unprepared to face. The elders really did know something he did not--Yoda really was the master and Luke the student.

With Rey and Luke Skywalker--without giving away anything specific--let me say that is not the relationship at all. While he does know a few more things than her, he is mired in his own point of view, one shown to be in effect "just Luke" and not reflecting any special wisdom. While Luke and Leia do know a few things that the younger generation does not, they are not especially wise. Resisting their advice does not come with especially sharp consequences.

In the end of The Last Jedi, the collected wisdom of the Jedi proves to be disposable--the story could and did do away with it and no negative consequences came about as a result. 

Perhaps I can be accused of looking for negative issues, searching for bones to pick. I probably am, though by force of habit rather than deliberate choice. While the clearly deliberate efforts to replace male authority with female in the overall arc of the new tales and to establish greater racial balance than past stories could perhaps be criticized as bowing to modern opinion first and caring about storytelling second, such things only mildly caught my attention in The Last Jedi. The storytelling actually was pretty good and essentially believable, Social Justice Warrior influence (however much it may have been) notwithstanding.

But why was it that this new movie consistently showed older people and past tradition in a negative light, something do be defied, or worked around, a rebellion upon the rebellion portrayed against the First Order? 

I don't know. But it bothered me a bit.

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Sunday, December 3, 2017

Lessons from the Guadalajara Book Fair


Last week I traveled to the Guadalajara Book Fair, one of the largest book fairs in the world and the largest in Latin America from what I've heard. I attended a number of events and looked around the entire grounds, but only in Guadalajara for four out of nine days of the fair.

I did this with a specific purpose in mind. As an Evangelical Christian who writes science fiction and fantasy, who speaks Spanish and French proficiently and who has a Mexican wife, I was looking at the prospects of selling Christian-themed speculative fiction in Latin America. Some things I wanted to know included:


1. Are any Christian publishers already selling speculative fiction in Latin America?
2. Is any speculative fiction being sold at all at the fair? And if so, by which authors? Published by whom?
3. Factor X. What might I learn at the fair that I don't even know could be possible?

Probably I spent the most time on point number 2. I don't know how many books were on sale at the fair, but the number was massive. I did not see every book, but I did go to every store and look around for science fiction and fantasy and/or horror, a.k.a. "speculative fiction." Since I hoped to find a Latin American publisher for translations of stories I have either written or edited, I thought it would be great to see if any publishers in the Latin American world were already producing speculative fiction.

To my distress as I walked around the fair, while I kept seeing speculative fiction for sale, MOST of it was either in English from United States book publishers...or translated into Spanish, still published by US Publishers. Since getting backing by major US publishers like Harper Collins or Penguin Random House is rather hard, I had been hoping a Latin American publisher would be easier to access. I also saw a bit of UK and German speculative fiction (these countries were well represented at the fair), but not did not encounter a single publisher FROM Latin America who publishes speculative fiction, with the exception of literature for young children. (A partial exception to that is one publishing house from Brazil which publishes a number of fiction genres, including some speculative fiction.)

By the way, the things most in view by the US publishers were works of fiction tied to American movies or TV series. Some American comic book translations were around (both Marvel and DC), Game of Thrones (and other G.R.R Martin books), Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars. Some Divergent and Hunger Games, too. In horror books, almost exclusively Stephen King.

I finally found a genuinely Mexican-owned establishment which carried a significant amount of speculative fiction. All was under the title of "ciencia ficcion" by the way, marking that term as their roll-up catch-all for speculative fiction, which surprised me. They had, like others, G.R.R Martin, but not much else fantasy. But they did have some classic science fiction, some not carried at the book fair 
by the American publishers (as far as I saw)--Arthur C. Clark and Ray Bradbury among them. They had Stephen King like the US publishers, but also Anne Rice. A LOT of Anne Rice. But no Harry Potter that I saw and no Star Wars.

So I drew a conclusion from what I saw that it may be the case that this Mexican establishment carries science fiction to compete with US-owned publishers but carries authors for whom exclusive contracts do not exist. Maybe that's true and maybe it isn't, but if it is true that this company is searching for lesser-known books to compete with the "big boys," it may represent an opportunity. Maybe they would be willing to give books a try that other bookstores would not.

Oh, by the way, the Mexican company I'm taking about is not primarily a publisher, though I think they do publish some books. It's a bookstore chain, one called "Ediciones B." I plan to contact them in the near future, but I may have to do so as a publisher in order to have books distributed rather than as an author/editor.

Circling around to my point 1, I saw very few Christian publishers at the book fair at all. Tyndale was there selling Bibles, as were the "Sociedades Unidas Biblicas." But there were no other Evangelical publishers there at all, even though Mexico has some (I found out at least one was hit hard in the earthquake not that long ago south of Mexico City, and that's why they were not there). I did see some Catholic publishers, but they hardly carried any fiction at all. Some for kids and some classics, but they mostly had non-fiction.

By the way, I don't know what the proportion of fiction to non-fiction would be at a book fair in the United States, Canada, or Europe, but non-fiction was HUGE at the Guadalajara Fair. Clearly a lot more non-fiction sells in Latin America than fiction. A lot was religious, not just the Catholic versions, but I also saw plenty of New Age books, plenty of tarot and mysticism and that kind of thing. (And in the category of fiction that makes non-fiction claims, I also saw plenty of Dan Brown books.) The dominance of non-fiction was a bit surprising for me, but what I saw may mean I should write more non-fiction--IF reaching the Latin American market really matters to me (which I would say it does).

As for my point 3, yes, I found some surprises. A couple of things I found that I did not expect are not too surprising in retrospect. I found some e-book and audio book distributors looking for clients. It seems both formats are growing massively in Latin America. But a surprise factor was that several of these companies have English names, including Inkit, a Mexican e-book formatting and distribution company and Storytel.es, a Swedish audiobook company with a presence based in Spain. (It seems a name in English has the feeling of "tech" all over it in the Spanish-speaking world.)

The biggest surprise was I found some governments and non-government organizations are actively seeking to promote the national literature of their countries and as a result are willing to pay for translations to and from various languages. The Sharjah Book Fair of the United Arab Emirates is especially interested in translating books to and from Arabic, something I would like to apply for concerning my books. And New Zealand is looking to fund translations of NZ books into Spanish--so I am going to see if, God willing, I can arrange the translation of some books from my friend Grace Bridges at Splashdown Books in New Zealand into Spanish or possibly Portuguese, with New Zealand footing the bill. And Argentina is funding translations of Argentine authors into English, a task which I'm capable of performing myself and would not mind getting paid to do, assuming I can find some Argentine speculative fiction I would like to publish.

So overall, the experience at the Guadalajara Book Fair was a good one. I learned some important things and found a few new opportunities I'd never thought of.

Got any questions or comments for me on this topic? Feel free to leave them in the comments section below. :)


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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Taste and See


I'm coming to the end of what proved to be a month-long ordeal, JRTC (Joint Readiness Training Center), at Fort Polk, Louisiana. I am here with my Army Reserve unit, naturally, where we spent a week on orders prior to going to Louisiana, a week preparing to go to our field training in Louisiana, and then two weeks “in the box,” i.e. in the midst of our particular war scenario.

I'd like to write a post about the war scenario itself, but a particular incident that happened coming out of the field yesterday gave me something to write about first.

My fellow civil affairs troops were looking for a good meal after a week of eating field rations (both MREs—Meals Ready to Eat—and “First Strike” rations) and were talking pizza, but I wanted to save money and instead of cough up money for pizza, trudged over to the military dining facility at the rather primitive location we wound up being billeted in, “FOB Warrior.”

Military dining isn’t usually bad. The modern Army usually has contractors provide meals, unlike the infamously bad Army cooks of the Vietnam War and earlier. And it happens to be true the contractors feed us very well, almost always.

But in the week of getting ready to go to the field in Louisiana, we had eaten hot food provided by one of the supporting units for our JRTC exercise, the 52nd Brigade Support Battalion. For once, we actually were eating food provided by military cooks. While better than eating, say, wood chips and grass, it wasn’t what a well-fed American Soldier call “good eating.” Plus, the dining area was horribly mismanaged, with thousands of troops trying to pile into the same single fabric-topped building at the same time. The building was large; it sat hundreds, but the demand was in the thousands, so lines were long; sometimes food ran out before everyone ate and often it wound up being cold.

So, my expectations were low when going to eat at the dining facility at FOB Warrior yesterday.  In a building with a fabric top. But to my surprise, contractors were serving the food. And the meal was steak and shrimp. With fresh salad and fruit. With cheesecake for dessert (chilled cheesecake).

I returned to the barracks we’d been put in with the good news of how surprisingly good the food was. And I immediately met with skepticism from two soldiers I personally know to be very intelligent, who both reasoned with me that what I was saying could not be true.

In fact, they stated they believed I was trying to pull the wool over their eyes. To make fools of them. And as we talked, I remembered more details than what they shared here. I said, “And they had mashed potatoes. And cans of soda in the corner, Cokes, Dr. Pepper, Sprite, lots of brands. And in addition to the cheesecake, they had chocolate chip cookies, really big cookies, soft, with M&Ms in them.”

“And I bet the woman serving them was a beautiful blonde who had really big breasts pouring out of her blouse,” said the sergeant with obvious snark.

“Yeah, Perry, I can’t help noticing this story keeps getting better and better,” added the captain with a laugh.

Answering the sergeant, I said, “Um, no. But the woman taking our numbers was a really cute Latina.” Turning to the captain, I added, “Yeah, I recognize this sounds incredible, but every word is true. Honest.”

The conversation went back and forth like that, never in the exact words I just used, but along those lines. In the end, I failed to convince them that the shrimp and steak meal really existed. But it did.

This struck me after the fact as a moment worth of drawing an analogy. “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” begins Psalm 34:8, implying the God can be known by those who want to find Him. Those who seek out and test the truth about God can find not only that He is real, but furthermore, that God is good.

It would have taken the two members of my unit a mere five minutes to walk down the road to find out if what I was saying about the meal was true or not. But they would not do it.

It also bears noting that while I write fiction, I never maintain something is true that I know is actually false for any purpose. Not to make a joke—and not for any other reason either. So they had no particular reason to presume I was lying to them, but they chose to believe that I was, because that made more sense to them that me telling the truth. This leads to a conclusion that I’m not just basing on this one event, but which this event illustrates well:

1.      Some people are naturally disinclined to believe a witness talking about something that “seems too good to be true.” Such people in fact often feel no particular need to investigate whether or not this something is true; if it makes no sense to them, it is not true, period. Note I am not maintaining that there was no way to give them more evidence. I could have in the case of the meal, definitely. However, they had sufficient evidence from me to investigate for themselves, but they simply wouldn’t do it. It was more believable to them that I, a person who tries very hard to be honest at all times, was deliberately lying (for the purpose of a joke), than to believe good food was just a short walk down the road. How much more are some people unwilling to contemplate that God might be real and might in fact care about the human race? To them, that’s nonsense and they simply won’t believe anyone who tells them otherwise.

2.      Those who disbelieve may in fact be very intelligent people and very convincing in their disbelief. I wound up laughing after a while talking about the meal because I knew from their point of view what I was saying sounded ridiculous. Of course, when I laughed, they were only even more convinced I was trying to play a joke on them. I promised them I was not and in fact gave them more details—which should have helped them realize I wasn’t inventing the meal, but it didn’t. Again, these were not dumb guys—they were two of the smartest guys in my unit. After a while, their skepticism convinced me to give up on trying to persuade them, because after all, it wasn’t that important. But even if it had been important, a principle applies:

3.      Those who have tasted the meal (or otherwise experienced something) are in fact under no obligation to explain how it happened. I could and did give more information that should have made the meal make more sense, i.e. it wasn’t the 52nd serving the meal, it was civilian contractors. But in the end, I did not know why the change in who was serving happened. I could and did speculate that it was to reward the Soldiers coming in from the field, to make us happy after our two weeks of suffering. But I don’t know that for certain. I offered it to the skeptics to help them make sense of the event I was describing, to make it clear I really was telling the truth. And there was nothing wrong with me doing that. However, all I really knew is what I witnessed myself. A meal was served; I partook. Likewise, I experience the presence of God in my life every day. My experience is real—I can attempt to explain it to the doubters and attempt to make it clear to them. But in fact I don’t owe them that. My experience requires no explanation to make it true. And I actually may not be able to explain very well, if at all. It doesn’t matter—what I have witnessed is what I have witnessed. Which leads me to the next point:

4.      Explanations of witnessed events are not required to believe them and it’s unreasonable to expect otherwise. Yes, it’s possible for people to delude themselves. Yes, it could be I imagined the meal I ate, though for me that would be more unlikely than me eating it, since I don’t regularly have delusions of eating imaginary food, no matter what the skeptics thought about the situation (though in fairness, they maintained I was lying, not that I was delusional). Yes, it could be I have imagined God’s presence in my life, but other than God, I do not in fact routinely sense people who are not around. I have every reason in fact to believe what my experience tells me, even if I cannot fully explain it. And that’s normal. Not irrational, not weird. Simply how experience ordinarily works.

5.      Getting a detail wrong does not invalidate the entire witness. I realized after a bit that I had misspoken—the potatoes were not mashed potatoes, they were scalloped, though served with the kind of scoop you normally see with mashed potatoes. But getting that detail wrong did not invalidate the overall tenor of what I witnessed. Likewise, a person can be mistaken about elements of their religious life and belief while still in fact witnessing something that at its core is true. Which leads to my final point:

6.      Skeptics should take care not to dismiss the witness of others too soon. The guys I spoke with about the meal were bright. They knew they were bright. They weren’t willing to be suckered in with false info, which they knew could happen. They may have even noticed a contradiction in what I was saying, that I first mentioned mashed potatoes but later changed to scalloped. But they in fact were not the center of the universe and what they deduced to be true was not immutable scientific law. Something could happen they had not planned for, something that did not make sense to them. Reality can in fact go in directions they had previously ruled out as “not possible.” They should have shown some willingness to realize they could be wrong. As should skeptics who doubt the existence of God, to whom I say, “Investigate for yourself—you just might discover something you didn’t expect.”



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