Thursday, September 27, 2018

Hitchcock: Terror and Suspense

On Art and Aesthetics listens as Alfred Hitchcock describes the difference between terror and suspense:
In February 1949, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) had a piece published in the Good Housekeeping magazine called “The Enjoyment of Fear” where he distinguished between the feelings and moods of “terror” and “suspense” with the help of vivid illustrations. The essay is included in a book called Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews. The legendary director writes: 
Fear in the cinema is my special field, and I have, perhaps dogmatically, but I think with good cause, split cinematic fear into two broad categories – terror and suspense.
He gives examples to make the distinction definite:
Walking down a dimly lighted street in the late hours of the night, with no other people about, a person may find his mind playing strange tricks. The silence, the loneliness, and the gloom may set the scene for fear.

Suddenly a dark form thrusts itself before the lonely walker. Terror. It does not matter that the form was a waving branch, a newspaper picked up by a gust of wind, or simply an oddly shaped shadow unexpectedly coming into view. Whatever it was, it produced its moment of terror. 
The same walker, on the same dark street, might have no inclination toward fear. The sound of footsteps coming from somewhere behind might cause the late stroller to become curious, then uneasy, then fearful. The walker stops, the footsteps are not heard; the pace is increased, so also the tempo of the thin sounds coming out of the night. Suspense. The echo of his own steps? Probably. But suspense. 
Read more at On Art and Aesthetics 

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Introducing Cordwainer Smith at Bushi SF/F

Over at Bushi SF/F, PC Bushi reintroduces a quiet but audacious SF writer from the past, Cordwainer Smith.
In “The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal,” the titular commander is suckered by a false distress signal broadcast by a twisted, deviant branch of humanity. The miserable people, colonists to the stars of ages past, encountered a world fatal to females. Determined to survive, the world’s women were scientifically transformed into men. A sick and demented civilization developed, fostering an insane hate for women and for normal humans. Ensnared by these monsters, Suzdal deploys a “life bomb” to a nearby moon along with a number of genetically modified cats, which he has programmed to serve mankind. The kicker – he uses a time travel device to send them back millions of years, to give them time to evolve. Up come their ships from the moon, and the cat people engage Suzdal’s attackers, allowing him to escape. 
PC Bushi summaries Smith's life and three more stories, each wildly strange in ways unimagined by the codification of tropes and convention. Learn more about Cordwainer Smith at Bushi SF/F and then read a mindboggling story or two.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Galaxy's Edge: Order of the Centurion

“The Order of the Centurion is the highest award that can be bestowed upon an individual serving in, or with, the Legion. When such an individual displays exceptional valor in action against an enemy force, and uncommon loyalty and devotion to the Legion and its legionnaires, refusing to abandon post, mission, or brothers, even unto death, the Legion dutifully recognizes such courage with this award.”

Tired of sitting out the war on Psydon in a mobile office hab, Legion Lieutenant Washam agrees to undertake a covert and unsanctioned mission with a band of Republic Recon Marines. Inserted deep behind enemy lines, the strike force uncovers a surprise key to ending a bitter war. Now they must navigate a hostile jungle teeming with murderous alien rebels, pushing themselves to the limits of their abilities, to get this vital intel to Legion Command--if they can survive that long. 

With Order of the Centurion, Galaxy's Edge begins its third series of books, dealing with standalone stories of Medal of Honor-level valor--and survival rates. If the main series is Anspach and Cole's take on the Clone Wars, this is their Rogue One. And after two disappointing Tyrus Rexs/Rechs bounty hunter books (the spelling tends to change with the author), the return to infantry combat is welcome. At their best, Anspach and Cole are the best straight infantry military science fiction writers out there, with a cinematic style unencumbered by the all too commonly expected digressions into strategy and why-we-fight motivations. Sure, Wash's personal motivations are explored, but we are not treated to yet more lessons in History and Moral Philosophy by Jean Dubois.

The action is excellent, the description is choke-on-the-dust vivid, and the camaraderie is true. Anspach and Cole set aside their literary flourishes and experiments for what is essentially a timeless war movie set in the Galaxy's Edge universe. It would not be a surprise to learn that this novel was optioned for a screenplay in the near future. That said, this is also the least Galaxy's Edge to date, with only a gloss of science fiction over the well-known tale of heroism from a unit that stumbled into more than it could handle.

If you like your war movies like We Were Soldiers and Black Hawk Down, you need to read Order of the Centurion.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Reading List

I've been on vacation for a couple weeks, and while I've read a lot, I've also let my reading pile build on me. So, at least for the review portion, I'm going to clear my list, one story at a time, before branching out into new stories. Finishing these reviews will keep me busy for a while.

Pre-Tolkien Challenge:
  • "At the Mountains of Madness" - H. P. Lovecraft
  • "The Death of Halpin Frayser" - Ambrose Bierce
  • A short story by Lord Dunsany
  • A short story by John Buchan
  • A short story by Lafcadio Hearn
Kindle Unlimited backlog:
  • Order of the Centurion - Jason Anspach and Nick Cole
  • Monsters - James Alderdice
  • Swords Against Darkness - edited by Andrew Offutt 
  • The Sign of the Moonbow - Andrew Offitt
  • Vindolanda - Adrian Goldsworthy
  • Scavengers - David West
  • Grey Cat Blues - J.D. Cowan
  • The Engima Strain - Nick Thacker
  • Some Dark Holler - Luke Bauserman
Castalia House Blog drafts:
A little accountability never hurts, so if there's something that catches your eye, please ask me about it.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Mortu and Kyrus

“Come then, try my steel and I will send you to hell where you belong. The gods of my people look down upon those that prey on the weak. There is no honor in it. There is no honor in you. I will enjoy killing you.”–Mortu

In Mortu and Kyrus in the White City, Schuyler Hernstrom returns to sword and sorcery, blending Dying Earth, Mad Max, and even a little Shaw Briothers kung fu into a future Earth recovering from the heavy hand of an alien overlord. The namesakes Mortu and Kyrus, a pagan motorcycle barbarian from the North and a Christian monk from Zantyum respectively, are on a quest to break the sorcerer’s spell that chains Kyrus into the form of a monkey. On the long road, they find a caravan attacked by nomads and a wayward Christian knight. Mortu and Kyrus intervene with a few sharp strokes of Mortu’s axe, and in gratitude, the caravan invites the duo to their White City. Within moments of their arrival, Mortu and Kyrus are swept up in the dark secrets beneath the foundations of the City.
Following in the well-worn path of sword-and-sorcery duos inspired by Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Mortu and Kyrus split the questing responsibilities in the traditional way. When presented with a mystery, Kyrus, as befitting a trickster or a thief, discovers why the mystery happens, while dour Mortu is called in to make sure the mystery ends. But Mortu is more in the mold of Conan than Fafhrd, a barbarian suspicious of civilization, not infatuated with it. Kyrus is a blend of Eastern and Western monk archtypes, a true believer, but a wandering monk nonetheless, full of the trickery and misfortune that such monks herald. Laudably, Hernstrom does not take the easy route and make Kyrus a hypocrite.
But then Hernstrom refuses the easy path throughout Mortu and Kyrus. None of the Christian characters are treated as hypocrites and monsters, a rarity in a genre that has long been hostile to Christianity (as E. Hoffman Price’s The Book of the Dead reveals). He treats the Cross as a civilizing force and a general good, although one Mortu still remains skeptical if it is an absolute good. While this is the first adventure available to readers, this is not an origin story. Mortu and Kyrus’s relationship is presented as established, and we are not forced to follow detailed stories of how Mortu and Kyrus met, how Kyrus got turned into a monkey, or of Mortu’s earlier life as a solo adventurer. At best, we see quick mentions, no more than needed in the course of brief conversation. The departure from current fashion is refreshing, and it hints at a greater world beyond the White City. Hernstrom deftly balances the mysteries of his wider world with the immediacy of sword and sorcery action. He accomplishes more worldbuilding with a few scraps of description than most writers accomplish with paragraphs of exposition. The effect is reminiscent of Vance’s The Last Castle, where entire swaths of human history are revealed in snatches of description and custom.
If Mortu and Kyrus seems a bit more predictable than Hernstrom’s previous works, it is because he has stepped up to the Great Conversation, “the ongoing process of writers and thinkers referencing, building on, and refining the work of their predecessors.” Here, readers can see the outlines of Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”,  a particularly notable short work dealing with the dilemma of a hedonistic Eden fueled by the suffering of one innocent. The ones who cannot accept that their paradise requires the intentional suffering and neglect of a child walk away from the city, unwilling to benefit from his suffering, but unwilling to rescue the child. Omelas has been a popular parable in science fiction, revisited time and again, and by such notable shows as Doctor Who. At best, the protagonists rescue the child, but leave the society intact. Few, if any, render judgement against the people who benefited from the abuse of the child, nor prevent that society from finding a new child to torment for their pleasures. Mortu settles the Omelas dilemma with an older, more satisfying approach:
“You may talk of cities and justice all you wish. Tonight, the pagan wins. My anger will be sated and these wicked people brought to ruin.”
It is the approach of the hero, the pagan barbarian, and the Christian knight, illustrated in blood and adrenaline. One where actions matter more than intentions, and honor has meaning.
Fortunately, Mortu and Kyrus in the White City promises to be the first of many adventures for the barbarian biker and the monkey monk. Whether Hernstrom sets out to gore more sacred cows or just let Mortu gore more villains, I eagerly await the next.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Frederic Brown Editor’s Choice Award For Short Fiction

At his blog, Misha Burnett proposes a new award for short fiction. Please take a look at the full details and comment over at his site. 
Overview: In the interests of promoting independently published short fiction I am proposing the creation of an juried award for short fiction. The purpose of the award would be to showcase the best short fiction of the year, as determined by a panel composed of small press editors. 
Categories: I propose four categories be determined by story length; Short-Short (or Flash), Short Story, Long Story, and Novella. Exact word counts to be determined. Stories of any genre would be eligible. (One of the reasons that I chose Frederic Brown as the namesake for the award is his body of work crosses genre lines.) 
Notes And Cautions: I am not an administrator nor a publisher. I have no idea how to judge the feasibility of this idea. I have no idea of how to fund this project, nor even of a ballpark figure of how much would need to be raised. I am putting this out there in the hopes that people who do have the necessary skills will come forward. If they don’t, then it won’t happen.

Choose Your Enemies and The Rising of the Shield Hero

Commissar Ciaphas Cain, Hero of the Imperium, returns in Choose Your Enemies, his eleventh adventure for Warhammer 40,000's Black Library imprint. While on a posting to a remote mining planet, Ciaphas Cain and the 597th Valhallan Regiment unearth a hedonistic Chaos cult. But rooting out the corruption soon takes them to the heavily populated industrial world of Ironfound--and in the direct path of an Eldar raiding fleet. Will elven space pirates, Chaos demons, and crazed cultists finally prove to be too much for Cain?

It's been five years since the last Ciaphas Cain adventure, and, while more Cain is always welcome, the Hero of the Imperium is missing that Flashman scoundrel aspect of his nature that adds depth to his more noblebright adventures in the grim dark future of Warhammer 40,000. What's left is a standard military mystery, enlivened by the narrator's footnotes, if not her antics on stage. It's Cain lite, which is still better than most military-flavored SF, just not at Black Library's prices. Hopefully further adventures will take Cain into the upheaval of the new setting in Warhammer 40,000.

In the first volume of The Rising of the Shield Hero light novel, Naofumi Iwatani discovers a mysterious tome in a library that, when read, takes him to another world. As the Shield Hero, he must join forces with other legendary heroes to defend this new world. However, he is soon slandered and betrayed by a princess of the realm. Forced into penury, Naofumi must rely on his own wits to grow stronger, for the only way home is by saving the ungrateful world he is trapped in. Even if it takes some unsavory measures.

Let's face it, contemporary light novels have not fared well in Castalia House reviews. For every title reviewed, two others don't make the cut. And at first glance, Shield Hero appears destined to join those rejected titles. After all, isekai revenge fantasies usually follow the same script into psychopathic wish fulfillment, especially those based around litRPG mechanics. Naofumi's journey, however, follows a different path, one critical of the standard isekai hero. He is gifted with a useless weapon before falling victim to court machinations that most heroes merely handwave their way through. To survive, Naofumi resorts to unscrupulous measures--including outright slavery--that proves that he does indeed merit the harsh treatment he deserves from his host nation. Consistently forced into disadvantageous positions, Naofumi must figure out how to solve problems and win fights without the blessings that his fellow heroes have learned to enjoy. And when Naofumi eventually wins the day when his more gamer-minded fellow heroes cannot, it only earns him suspicion and jealousy instead of praise. Shield Hero follows Naofumi into some dark places without devolving into venom, diatribe, or secret king preening, creating something unique for isekai, an anti-hero that is not a loser out for revenge.