Bullshit

“Orphan Black” Has a Villain Decay Problem

Somehow made all cute and hilarious this past season.

Somehow made all cute and hilarious this past season.

That Orphan Black, the SF show about a woman who discovers she’s one of many, many clones produced by a secret and unethical experiment, has over the course of three seasons become almost insufferably complicated. What was once a fairly crisp story about a woman struggling to save herself and her child while dealing with the horrifying realization that she’s a clone has spiralled into territory familiar with anyone who has watched TV shows based on a “mystery” premise: The audience wants answers, but if you actually give them the show is over, so you pull a trick wherein you explain a mystery while setting a new one in motion.

This can work for a while, if you’re skillful, and Orphan Black, in fact, seemed to pull it off in its second season, expanding the world and complicating the mystery while delivering a continuously interesting story week in and week out. This past year, though, things have come off the rails a bit. There are still pleasures to be had, mainly in Tatiana Maslany’s incredible performances, but the story itself is slow-moving hogwash, to use a technical term. The main problem is that Orphan Black hasn’t met a villain it can’t destroy in a few quick episodes. In fact, the show has had so many it’s solution to the malaise at the end of the last season was to circle back and recycle a villain from the first season.

Villain Decay

In the beginning, there were the Neoloutinists, a cult that believed in “self-directed evolution” who backed the cloning experiment and sought to control the clones, manipulating their lives and monitoring them. There was also a religious cult that saw the clones as abominations, and trained one of the clones to be an unstoppable killing machine, Helena, who was basically a serial killer of clones.

But the clones managed to turn the tables on the Neolutionists, maneuvering one of their allies into a position of authority at the institute set up to monitor the clones and removing the evil clone who’d been working with the Neolutioninsts. Also, Helena, once depicted as a crazy and incredibly dangerous person, was turned into a cuddly if sometimes murderous piece of comic relief as she became affectionate towards her clone sestras. So a new threat was devised: A separate military project involving male clones, which caused a bit of trouble until, again, the female clones managed to completely neuter it and render it impotent. And so, in the third season finale, the show surveyed its field of limp and defeated villains and came up with the idea that the Neolutionists, seemingly defeated for a very long time, were actually embedded in all of these other organizations and running the whole show secretly.

Much of this seems to have been done in the service of surprise: Build up someone as a Big Bad, then shock everyone when they are defeated much sooner than expected. This kind of writing gimmick is like crack: It feels good, but has diminishing returns and leads to your show being canceled.

The problem here is twofold: One, it’s hard to take these villains seriously when all it takes, usually, is a few episodes for them to either be utterly destroyed or brought over as allies; two, the new villains are always just permutations on the conspiracy the clones have been fighting against since Day One. They’re nothing new, just new versions of the same enemy.

A Glimmer of Hope

It’s possible that the bloodbath that was the Season 3 finale was a purposeful clearing of the decks, bringing back the original villains who will now be coherent and focussed. Instead of more and more variations on the “someone is secretly making and modifying or killing or spying on clones!” riff, we might get a real purpose to everything, and perhaps a single face for the enemy. That would go a long way to excusing Season 3’s disastroys meandering. Only time will tell.

The TL;DR version for writers is simple: When you’ve got a mystery-driven storyline, do two things immediately: a) have an exit strategy that involves and overall explanation for everything, and b) don’t give in to the temptation to destroy your villains on the regular just for the story shock value.

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Win a PRINT Copy of “The Walled City”

Walled_coverIf you’re a fan of Avery Cates, you already know, most likely, that The Walled City, a short story that picks up where the previous story, The Shattered Gears, left off came out last week on Amazon, Nook, Google Play, and Kobo–in short, as a digital-only story.

Well, if you’d like to actually have a print copy of this story, I’m giving away two. Just two–signed any way you’d like, and mailed directly to your door.

How do you get you mitts on one? Just comment here, and I’ll pick two random comments. I’ll announce the winners on Friday, June 26th.

Get commentin’!

OR, buy a digital copy for yourself:

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I Was a Teenage Script Kiddie

For a brief, glorious moment, I was King of the Nerds.

For a brief, glorious moment, I was King of the Nerds.

When I was eleven years old, my parents bought me a Commodore 64, which at the time was the most amazing thing ever invented, built, or sold retail. It was also kind of pricey for my family, and I have no doubt they justified the expense by telling themselves it would help inspire me to become a computer programmer and thus be rich.

That never happened: Math is hard. Let it drift.

However, they hedged on the budget by opting to buy just the computer itself, with no storage device. That meant that I was limited to what I could do with the computer – I could type in a program, but with no way to save it the moment I turned off the computer it disappeared. After spending weeks typing in a program listed in a Commodore magazine, I successfully lobbied for a storage option, but we went for the cheapest option: Magnetic tape.

Tape worked, but it was slooooowwww. I had one game: Telengard, and it took about five minutes to be read in from tape. This was not a game that actually deserved five minutes of my time for loading, but it was all I had. And at least I had a place to store programs and other things, although if I’d been stuck with that tape drive I would likely have gotten very, very tired of my Commodore 64 very quickly.

Thankfully, we got robbed.

A No Good, Very Bad Day

My grandmother came to live with us when I was maybe ten or eleven; my memory, as always, is vague. Nanny was strict and somewhat mean-spirited, or so it seemed to us kids; she was always grousing that we were lazy and messy. Later in life she went through a bizarre period when she claimed to be unable to swallow food, and wasted away to the point where she couldn’t get out of bed despite the fact that doctors could find nothing wrong with her, at which point my Mother apparently went in, close the door, and told her she would be put in a nursing facility if this bullshit didn’t stop.

Nanny got better.

Anyways, when she did eventually pass away, we went to the funeral only to come home and discover our house had been robbed; thieves had obviously scanned the obituaries and noted the date of the funeral. Our neighbors had noticed the busted window but done nothing but stand around and cluck nervously, so it was up to us to call the cops.

The house was a mess. Drawers had been turned out, everything pushed out of place. They took some jewelry that wasn’t worth much, missed all the cash my mother had hidden around the house, and stole the Commodore 64.

My parents, exhibiting a crafty sort of self-serve justice I’d never seen before and never did see again in them, listed a disk drive on the insurance claim form instead of a tape drive. It was a little shocking, to be honest with you, to see them indulge in some minor insurance fraud. But I got my 1541 single 5.25” disk drive to go along with a new C64, and I was off to the races.

Floppies

The 5.25” floppy disk was an amazing thing. It stored 170 kilobytes of data, but you could cut a notch into the side that would allow you to flip it over and so each disk was instantly doubled, although this did increase the wear and tear a bit.

A few weeks after getting one, a kid at school introduced me to a program called Copy Quick. This was an amazing moment, because it opened up the world of software piracy. From that moment on, I never bought another program, because there were kids at school to trade with. Want a copy of Beach Head? Go find Hector and offer him a copy of Blue Max for it. Get turned down, because no one wanted Blue Max.

It was a whole subculture. We all had lists of the software we owned and we would pore over them and cook up trades like real wheeler-dealers. When someone got their hands on a hot or rare program, it was chaos and excitement as everyone tried to pry it out of their undeserving hands.

None of us thought it was wrong, or illegal. None of us really understood any of it, either. We were early versions of what you might call Script Kiddies: The kids who don’t actually know much about programming but download software and use it. I had no idea how my 1541 disk drive worked. All I knew was that if I wanted to copy a game, I would try a succession of copy programs until I found one that worked: Copy Quick, Fast Hack’Em, dozens of others. They were themselves copied.

By the end of grammar school, I had thousands of games and utilities on floppies. And despite lots of reports that the 1541 disk drive was unreliable, mine worked like a charm and may still be in working condition today, who knows? I still don’t know how any of it actually works, really, despite sporadic attempts to read about programming and hardware and teach myself a few things. But I do sometimes wish I could play some of those old games on the original hardware, especially the mysterious games I never figured out.

Non Comprendo, Compadre

You see, when you copied a game (often from a copy of a copy already) you didn’t get the manuals, and every now and then I got a game in a trade that I simply couldn’t figure out. It would load and appear to work properly, but I would have no idea what to do, what the rules were, how the controls worked. Sometimes you could figure it out. Sometimes my innate idiocy and lack of brains would assert themselves, and the game would remain a mysterious presence, ominous and filled with potential. Combined with the Internet, I could look up those games and totally rock them today.

If I ever invent time travel, that is exactly what I’ll do.

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The Walled City Available

Walled_coverHey all: The new Avery Cates short story, “The Walled City,” is officially available. If you didn’t pre-order it, you can straight-up buy it any time you want, like a boss — even on Nook, which didn’t allow pre-orders for some bizarre reason.

Continuing Avery Cates’ story from “The Shattered Gears,” “The Walled City” sees the aging Gunner tangle with a psionic who has set himself up as a City Lord in the crumbling remnants of civilization.

Here: read an excerpt!

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The Power of a Classic Lack of Choice

Visual Representation of Most People's MySpace Pages.

Visual Representation of Most People’s MySpace Pages.

MANY BOTHANS DIED TO BRING US THIS INFORMATION: So, over at US Weekly (don’t ask how I came across this) they did a little piece on Kim Kardashian’s old MySpace account. You can Us Weekly on KK’s MySpace Monstrosity, and view the pink horror of Princess Kimberly and her 856 MySpace friends. This was in 2006, two years before Facebook arrived on the scene, so people can be forgiven for having a MySpace page. However, I think there’s a lesson here for writing and writers — no, seriously, wait, where are you going? Come back!

So, here’s the thing: Forget Kim Kardashian, just look at that hot mess of a page. Then compare it to Facebook. On the one hand, MySpace should have been the more popular. People can customize their pages, changing colors, adding graphics and music. Facebook is like the Dystopian government of social media: You get one shade of blue and one shade of white and fuck you if you don’t want to see promoted shit. And yet, Facebook is dominant and MySpace … well, people are generally confused to discover that MySpace still exists.

The lesson here for writers is: When it comes to worldbuilding, classic and clean is usually better.

See, back in 2006 you might have been forgiven for assuming that the world of social media and online profiles et al would go the way of MySpace: Increasing customization, increasing personalization. People had some hideous, hideous and horrific (but very personal) MySpace pages back in the day. Don’t believe me, just Google “ugly MySpace pages” and see them in their eye-straining glory. But if you were trying to imagine the kids using the intrawebs back in 2006, or trying to envision what the Super Internet of the future in 2015 would look like back in 2006, you might have used MySpace as a jumping off point and imagined a world where everyone had complete and awful control over the aesthetics of their social media.

Instead, of course, Facebook came along. Like a stern older executive at your company, they don’t allow customization, really. Everyone gets exactly one shade of blue, limited control over what they see and who sees what they post, and generally a uniform and bland visual experience. And people love it. Or at least like it better than the nightmarish universe that was MySpace.

The Lesson

So, the lesson: Be careful when imagining where the world will be — and also when cherry-picking the details you use to establish time and place when your story is set in the present. If you published a novel in 2006 that went on and on about someone’s MySpace page, then welcome to that awkward moment when everyone in the universe will have a moment of eyebrow-raising disruption when they come across this nugget in your story.

Now, we all get things wrong, sometimes. And heck — you might use Facebook in a story today, feeling fairly confident that its 7-year reign of terror over us all will go on forever. But like Kubrick’s use of Pan Am in 2001: A Space Odyssey, even the most established and seemingly rock-solid organizations and corporations can fall, leaving your work sadly dated. This would argue for limiting such references as much as possible. After all, your reference to Facebook might lend your scene a verisimilitude today, and make it feel ancient and outdated three years from now. Keep it classic and clean — which means concentrating more on what your characters are doing rather than the corporate channels they’re using.

And, in case you’re wondering, no, I didn’t have a MySpace page. I actually thought I was too good for social media until 2010 or so, which might explain why I’m so unpopular.

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On Reading Everything

Holy shit this book is awful

Holy shit this book is awful

So, as many may have noticed, I’ve been doing a lot of writing about books lately over at Jeff Bloviating at Barnes and Noble and Jeff Bloviating at About.com. It’s a lot of fun, and since I am one of those people who lives in constant danger of being buried under his immense piles of books that he keeps around his house like some sort of over-educated hoarder, it’s a perfect fit. But it’s also a job, so I am often expected or encouraged to read outside my normal taste, including some things I frankly would not choose to read of my own free will. And you know what? It’s been fantastic.

Here’s the thing: Most books have something to offer. I really do believe that — even the books cynically created by marketing divisions to absorb cash from gullible morons, even those books have something in them that you haven’t seen before, or, if nothing else, are edifying in their sheer monstrous evil hollowness. Reading widely doesn’t mean reading an occasional book you haven’t heard of. It means reading shit you would rather walk on glass than read. It means reading shit by political commentators and authors who resemble corporations with divisions pushing novels out of the corporate colon several times a year and reading immensely popular phenomenon novels that appear to have been written by a drunk superfan of other overwrought phenomenon novels.

It means reading everything.

Not all this stuff is good, of course, but it’s all interesting if you find the right angle. And I’ve found myself reading a few books that I would never have otherwise read that turned out to be awesome and incredibly enjoyable books, and as long as that rate hovers somewhere above 0%, I’m pretty much winning.

The Rut

I’m a man of ruts and habits, deep, deep habits that tend to get ossified over time.If left to my own devices I would be reading nothing but classic novels, old science fiction, and old-school detective fiction, repeated endlessly. If I were to design an experiment to encourage me to read more widely, I might create something like this: One third paid assignments, one third rando recommendations from people, one third drunk shopping on BN.com. Maybe a bit more of the latter, depending on how drunk I am that week. Which, judging from past weeks, is typically pretty drunk.

Anything that breaks me out of my usual routines is a good thing. And reading everything — including some hair-raisingly bad books — and then figuring out a way to comment on those books intelligently (or so I kid myself) has been a blast, and will likely continue to be a blast. Some people act like reading a book they know is outside their wheelhouse and is also probably pretty badly written will somehow infect them and ruin their palette for good books. That’s ridiculous. Read the bad books. Think of something smart to say about them. It’s good for you.

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SMRT: Welcome to the Age of Faux Expertise

dumbOne of the most painful aspects of growing older is the slow sinking realization that I am not so smart. When I was a kid, school was easy and adults were always telling me how smart I was, and man did I believe them. I believed them hard, and my ongoing ability to achieve academic – well, success is too strong a word, more like mediocrity – despite a lack of interest, effort, or even reading the books I was assigned just reinforced it.

As I’ve gotten older, though, one thing has become very, very clear: I may not be stupid, but I am also not smart. Also, I am lazy and have no fashion sense, but these facts have never been in dispute and have also never been controversial in any way.

However, despite not being very smart, I am smart enough to know when commercials and other advertising is wanking me off. And it’s irritating, especially this new breed of Faux Expert come ons.

(more…)

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Two Cents on Mad Men

Just give me five minutes, and I'll be golden.

Just give me five minutes, and I’ll be golden.

I CANNOT HELP MYSELF.

I know that writing endless blog posts about a TV show is silly, really, but at risk of annoying the folks who cannot comprehend how you can spend so much energy contemplating a work of art, I have thoughts about Mad Men and the finale. In a nutshell: The whole show is about the fear of losing that creative spark.

Let’s start with the pilot episode: Don Draper, in a sweat because he has no ideas. He spend the whole episode in a sweat, worried he’s lost his gift, worried his brain will, finally, betray him and leave him with nothing to offer in the pitch session with Lucky Strike. Creative folks know that sweat: Every time we take on a new project, we worry that the Idea Machine in our brains will abandon us. Trust me. I’m still haunted by a brief period in college when I came up dry on story ideas and feared my best was behind me at the age of twenty. Stop laughing. This shit is serious.

Over the course of the whole show, we’ve been watching Don Draper fade. Season One is where his two most memorable and most-quoted pitches occur: Lucky Strike and Kodak. Since then, what truly great pitches has Don managed? None that I can think of. Well — maybe the Accutron Pitch in the first episode of Season Seven. That pitch kind of rocked — but, notably, Don wrote it, but he didn’t pitch it. And while it’s an arresting piece of writing, it’s not exactly a creative triumph that has people rushing from the room in tears. It’s just a solid, well-written piece of marketing. Don is a pro. Losing your creative spark doesn’t mean you lose the skills as well — he can still write, and write well. But he has no new ideas.

That’s not to say he wasn’t still creative. Or smart. Or cool. But we’ve been watching a Don Draper who is less and less creative as time goes by. In the season four episode “The Suitcase” Don’s big idea at the end is a simple steal from the iconic photo from the big fight. Also in season four, Don wins a Clio for his Glo-Coat commercial, but not only is it not an especially brilliant idea, it’s also largely stolen from Peggy. In the season six episode “The Crash,” Don, high on speed, claims he has a great idea, but can’t even articulate it.

Don retains his “cool” until his disastrous pitch to Hershey in Season 6. In the final season of the show, Don is relegated to creative grunt work, and even when he regains his executive authority, there are no good ideas. Don Draper goes from a creative genius in 1960 to a man still coasting on past (and long gone) creative glory in 1970.

Until rock bottom. Until Coke.

Once again, in the finale, Don is up against it. While he hasn’t been officially tasked with coming up with a pitch for Coke, we know he’s been assigned to the Coke pitch. We know Jim Hobart wants Don on Coke. And throughout the last few episodes, Don has been seeing Coke everywhere: At the meeting for Miller Beer he walks out of, on the road as he wanders the country. Many of the details at the retreat end up in his commercial pitch, and even rando Leonard’s speech about being unnoticed and wondering about love — the speech that moves Don to embrace him and break into tears — reminds Don of Coke (think about it – the whole bit about the dream of being in the refrigerator).

Don finally has a good idea again. No — a great idea, because no matter how you feel about advertising as a creative medium, the fact is that Hilltop Coke commercial is regarded as one of the most effective and most creative ads ever. After nearly ten years of stagnation, Don manages one last flash of genius. And that’s why Don will be okay. It has nothing to do with his familial obligations or failures, or his money, or his libido. Don will be okay because he’s found his creativity again.

Or, yanno, it was a TV show and they made it up as they went along. Shut up.

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The Coming Age of Assholes: Mad Max Fury Road

Mad-Max-Fury-Road-lovely-dayMad Max: Fury Road is a great movie. Zero exposition, nonstop action, real-feeling stuntwork, and subtle performances plus a surfeit of imagination when it comes to the details and characters of a universe — these are the ingredients for a film that will probably be remembered long after the Marvel tent collapses under its own weight. If you disagree that Fury Road is a good-to-great film, we are no longer friends.

What struck me most about the universe in Fury Road is the way George Miller assumes that in the event of apocalypse, it’s not the strong who will survive. Or the just. Or the smart. Or the innocent. No, Miller’s universe has consistently assumed one thing: When the world ends, it will be the assholes who rule the embers.

Confining ourselves just to Fury Road, every single character, basically, is an asshole. You have your murderous thugs in Immortan Joe and his crew, you have your unsympathetic, gluttonous plutocrats in the leaders of Gastown and the Bullet Farm. You even have Max himself and Furiosa, our protagonists, who are both incredible assholes. Max, after all, spends much of the film concerned only for himself, and Furiosa isn’t exactly nice, and she’s making “amends” for some mysterious crimes, likely pegged to her rank as Imperator in Immortan Joe’s brutal society.

Now, this makes sense. A lot of apocalyptic fiction likes to imagine that at least somewhere some thoughtful, socialized folks will set up camp and impose some sort of order, or that even when pushed to the edges of their humanity people will still be fundamentally good. The Stand and The Walking Dead both trade in these tropes, but Miller is probably closer to what would really happen: The assholes who already act like civilization is an impediment to their enjoyment of life will simply strap on a studded codpiece, rev up a chainsaw, and take over your town with brutal glee.

Think about the folks you ride the subway with, who share your HOA, who bump into you at bars and nightclubs. Think about all those assholes and despair, because chances are they will be the Immortan Joes of our future world, whereas the rest of us will be killed, enslaved, or exiled.

In fact, I personally like an interpretation of the film that “Max” as portrayed by Tom Hardy isn’t actually the Max Rockatansky from the original three films — that Max has become a legend of sorts, a ceremonial name people adopt when they leave behind the brutal me-vs-you attitude of the world. This appeals to me because it fits in with my Assholes Theory: It’s like you have this epiphany that you just fought like a dog for something larger than yourself, or common decency, and you’re declaring that you’re no longer, I dunno, Gloriable Amputate or some other insane persona wearing leather and driving a car festooned with rusting metal spikes, but a person – the legendary Max.

Likely that’s a stretch, though Miller’s casual attitude towards continuity and throughline in his four films makes it entirely possible. Either way, it doesn’t matter, the point remains the same: In the Mad Max universe, the assholes have taken over, and it’s why the films are so good. It’s the verisimilitude.

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Excerpt from “The Walled City”

Walled_cover

Because this is my job, I’m going to continue to try and convince you to buy my wares. Here’s the first 600 words or so of the new Cates short story, which you know you want like the desert wants the rain:

1. the accumulation of humiliating aches and pains

I made myself as comfortable as I could against the tree and watched the smoke rise. Several thin tendrils of white smoke, very tidy, very on purpose. This wasn’t some old fuel depot blowing, or a town catching a spark from a wildfire. This was civilization.

In the field in front of me there was the wreck of an old SSF Hover, bent nearly in half, a scattering of rotting white uniforms around it. It had been stripped of anything useful years ago, and a climbing vine had begun to envelope it industriously, crushing it an increment at a time over the course of centuries.

The fields had once been worked and still retained the basic outlines of neat squares of crops, but were being overrun, melting slowly back into the wild. I sat for a long time in the warming air, watching, listening. The smoke was the first sign of life I’d encountered since the Howler. I didn’t exactly have the urge to go running towards it, shouting in joy at not being alone any more.

Instead, I let my hands slide the shredder off my shoulder and begin dismantling it while my eyes, which weren’t what they used to be, kept scanning, and my ears – also not what they once were – kept straining through the birdsongs.

Shredders, the Roon Corporation 1009 model – gas-powered, explosive shells – were notoriously easy to jam. They attracted grit and dirt like it was a design feature, and failed on a regular basis. For the old Stormers in their white ObFu, it didn’t matter because they’d had plenty of backups, and plenty of other Stormers laying down fire. For me, alone and old, with limited ammo and fraying reflexes, the shredder was a superpower. If it didn’t jam when I fired it.

Luckily, they’d been designed for morons to take apart and clean.

I didn’t know where I was. I hadn’t seen any of the robotic … things that had dragged me to the Howler’s little playpen, but that didn’t mean they weren’t out there. And now I had cooking fires, my first people in a very, very long time. I didn’t know how to feel about being alarmed and unhappy about the idea of seeing other human beings.

Feel smart, Marin whispered in my head.

He was the last survivor, or at least the last conscious survivor. Where once I’d had dozens in my head, Marin was the only one who spoke up, now. It was rarer and rarer, and usually only to insult me, though if I concentrated I found I could usually get him to answer me. There might be others in there, silent, watching – Marin had hinted as much – or then again he might have been fucking with me, because I got the sense that Richard Marin, former Director of the System Security Force, did not like me very much.

When I was done with the shredder, I stowed it next to me in its bag and took out the Head. Mara’s face was frozen in an expression locked somewhere between shock and amusement, and would always be if I had anything to say about it. Inside the plastic and silicon was Canny Orel, or a magnetic imprint of him, all those secrets, all that death.

“One,” I said, holding it up to the sky, “I go check out the smoke. Good idea if it’s civilized. Maybe I can trade some stuff. Jesus, maybe someone has fucking alcohol.”

The Head said nothing.

“Two,” I offered. “I go around the long way, because everyone I’ve ever met in my whole life has been a miserable asshole.”

The Head said nothing, but it felt like it was agreeing with me.

—-

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