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Love, Simeon Posts

Working on the Craft… Is On Pause

Life has been throwing curve balls at me (sportsball metaphor!) for these past few weeks. I am dealing with it as best I can, but writing seems to have become the proverbial innocent bystander. My creativity is fluctuating wildly, and when the time comes to write, I feel drained and unmotivated. I know myself well enough to expect this to be temporary. But until then, writing exercises feel like too much of a chore.

In the meantime, a housekeeping note. I decided to skip the “Women and Men” section of The 3 A.M. Epiphany. There are some pretty inventive exercises there, but the outdated gender roles and implied relationship dynamics feel like too much effort to navigate healthily at the moment. So my plan, once I get back to the book, is to proceed to the next section, titled “Children and Childhood”.

You Will (Almost) Certainly Disappoint Everyone With Your Prequel

Recently, I reviewed Suzanne Collins’ The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. It was a Hunger Games novel, so I wasn’t going to miss it. I ended up quite enjoying it, because it was focusing on a character, rather than events. But back when I first heard about it, my reaction was an exasperated sigh.

I hate prequels. I hate them with a fiery passion. I respect the fact that not everyone feels as I do, and for some people returning to a beloved world is enough to be happy. But I am not wired this way. I enjoy that, to be sure, but my main drug is story. And here is the thing about prequels: I know what happens next.

There is a pretty solid argument to be made that the very concept of a prequel is messing with the dramatic rhythm of a work. The emotional punchline is by default muted. Sure, we are invested (smirk) in the trade disputes around the blockade of the planet Naboo in The Phantom Menace. Or the mystery of the clone army in Attack of the Clones. Or even Sidious’ machinations in Revenge of the Sith. But really, what we want to see, is the rise of the Empire and Anakin turning evil.

Except, we already know those things will happen. The Empire will rise. Anakin will become Darth Vader. And then Sidious will be killed by his apprentice, who will die saving his son. Thus apparently redeeming himself for being the galaxy’s shittiest parent.

This makes any potential emotional punch of the Star Wars prequels – even were they better written – immediately lessened. And what’s worse, we now have the bad taste of those not-awesome movies that mars our experience of the original trilogy. And this applies to any work of art. Often the prequel will create context that damages the original story in some way, and for what? I don’t want to sympathize with the villain. I don’t need to know how many adventures the protagonist’s now-dead parents had. It only makes me annoyed that they died so easily before the story even began.

I think it is likely easier to write a prequel than a sequel. You are working with a pre-existing world, and leaning on a completed story that demands a certain direction. Furthermore, publishers LOVE prequels. For established works they are certain cash cows, and even for less successful stories, they are, by definition, low-risk.

But here is the thing. Even when people like a story enough that they are willing to read anything related to it, they would still never truly love your prequel. And they will especially fail to love the diminishing returns of your prequel series. We know what comes after. Sooner or later we are just looking at our watches and waiting for it to just happen.

I did a little mental inventory to see if there have been any prequels I have genuinely loved. Weirdly enough, the most recent example I started this post with, is actually among the successful ones. The Star Wars sequel trilogy was far more exciting to me than the prequel one. It had never occurred to me to even try and read anything about James Potter, even before Joanne turned full TERF evil. But I did enjoy the flawed Cursed Child. The Dune prequels were… not awesome. The Wheel of Time’s New Spring left me gasping from boredom.

Our entertainment culture is driven more and more by profit, and seems to be increasingly terrified of taking risks. Literature, luckily, is low-stakes enough, and by its very nature can’t survive without new voices. But the moment something becomes successful, it is expected to keep proliferating. And hey, if they are offering you bags of money to write prequels, you should absolutely take their bags of money! The easiest way to do so is to look back. ‘How did we get here?’

But here is the thing. You already told us how. In the original story. If we needed to know more in order to understand it, you’d have told us then. And this is before considering that adding more (and rarely necessary) details only has the potential to mar the impression of the source material.

In most cases, prequels add nothing but disappointment and diminishing returns to my experience. I accept that this is not the case for everyone, but I dare you to show me a single work where a prequel was better or more exciting than the sequels. In the meantime, I will continue hoping that Collins takes us further into the future of Panem and the inevitable collapse of its inept people’s government.

Reading Update 07/15/20 – Too Much, and Just Enough

Sorry for the topical pun, which will cease to make sense within a week. But as I am halfway through Mary Trump’s unflattering and devastatingly empathetic portrait of her uncle, the title has been percolating in my head. This post is about something else however.

I have been reading a lot lately. My life is in the middle of some significant changes. For good and for bad, alas, but both aspects amount to more reading time. It’s a borderline feverish state of ingesting books, and it feels amazing! Reading has always been therapeutic for me, and working at a bookstore, it also makes me feel connected to my job.

On that note, apparently I am good at hyping up things and making people buy them. Who knew!

A bit of housekeeping. Last week I mentioned reading Sam Lansky’s Broken People. I ended up absolutely loving the book, but the reasons for that are a tad too personal to really talk about in a coherent review format. His story resonated with my own current circumstances, underlying mental health issues, and overall life experience in a way that never really matched, but at the same time informed them. I don’t even know if I could recommend it to people, because the experience was so personal.

Anyway, here’s to reading, and having complicated experiences with books!

Review: Mexican Gothic

I have experienced very little Gothic aesthetic, especially in literature form. Just about enough to recognize its trappings, but certainly nowhere near as much as I’d need to analyze it competently. This might be why I approached Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic with a certain trepidation. Turns out, I needn’t have worried. This is a novel that speaks for itself, in clear and compelling voice.

Young, rich debutante Noemi Taboada is running wild and carefree in 1950s’ Mexico City. Then her father abruptly changes that when he shows her a letter from her orphaned cousin. Catalina recently married into a once-rich old British family, and now lives with them in a faraway part of Mexico. Her letter is rambling and insane. She accuses her husband of poisoning her, mentioning voices within the walls, and other disturbing things. Noemi’s father insists that she goes to her cousin, to make sure the family will avoid a tabloid scandal.

But upon arrival in High Place — an old manor with no electricity, up on a foreboding hill, perched above an impoverished village – Noemi quickly finds herself trapped in a strange and hostile world. The Doyle family, into which Catalina married, is unfriendly and strange. The ailing old patriarch Howard is an eugenicist, deeming her “mixed” race inferior. Her cousin’s husband Virgil is in turns menacing, lascivious, and tender. Catalina herself has taken ill, and Noemi barely gets to see her, only to find her listless and distant.

Then the dreams come.

The house loomed over them like a great, quiet gargoyle. It might have been foreboding, invoking images of ghosts and haunted places, if it had not seemed so tired…

Mexican Gothic is exactly as advertised — a gothic horror with a socially conscious twist. The Doyles are an old British line. They’re steeped in tradition, stringent rules, and sense of superiority, despite their impoverished and decaying state. There are other elements that place the story firmly in its time and place as well. Even so, the novel is far more focused on its plot than any kind of sociological exploration. Though the pacing is slow to begin with, it never seems to drag, but rather weaves subtle layers of tension. In the second half, this tension explodes in directions often gruesome and genuinely disturbing.

In typical gothic fashion, the story has an underlying current of forbidden sexuality. And as any self-respecting horror, it uses it to unsettle the reader. Noemi is a strong-willed and brave girl, but she is just a girl. And she is among people who often don’t even try to hide the predator behind the noble facade. To her credit, Moreno-Garcia understands how to do horror well. She never crosses lines for shock value, but rather allows her story to dance on the edges of snapping tension. Meanwhile, she also fully utilizes the gothic aesthetic, both in dialogue, and in painting Noemi’s surroundings.

Just because there are no ghosts it doesn’t mean you can’t be haunted.

What I loved most of all, is that while using traditional forms and language to tell her story, the author is unabashedly creative with her worldbuilding. While I happened to guess many of the book’s plot-twists and revelations, I actually loved them no less for it. The concept at the core of Mexican Gothic is original and profoundly unnerving, while still utilizing the themes of gothic literature. In all honesty, Silvia Moreno-Garcia vastly over-delivers on the minimalist setup she begins with.

In short, Mexican Gothic is a captivating, alluring, living thing, pulsating with promise. From the gorgeous cover to the last sentence, the novel brings equal doses excitement and revulsion. It is highly aestheticized, yet tells its story in a consistently discomforting way. As a sidebar, I would recommend that you avoid reading too many reviews. The story is easy to spoil unwittingly, and it is worth experiencing without expectations. Suffice it to say that it is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and if gothic horror is something you are willing to give a chance to, I cannot imagine you will be disappointed.

Review: The Relentless Moon

I first heard of Mary Robinette Kowal from the Writing Excuses podcast. At the time, my impressions of her were personality-based. She was confident, wore many hats, and had strong feelings about intersectionality in art (like me). She also had no patience for your bullshit. Only later did I actually get acquainted with her writing. By then, I couldn’t help but hear every word on the page in her smooth voice. And for what that’s worth, it has only made me appreciate her already great writing even more.

The Relentless Moon is the third full-length novel in the Lady Astronaut of Mars series, based on a novella with the same name. In an alternate timeline, a meteorite hits Earth in 1952, starting a greenhouse effect that will make the planet uninhabitable. Humanity unites like never before to establish colonies on the Moon and Mars, and avoid extinction. But that unity doesn’t mean that the many prejudices of the mid-20th century have suddenly been forgotten.

The first two books tell the story of this alternate space exploration through the eyes of the mathematician Elma York, destined to become the famous Lady Astronaut. In The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky she has to prove to the men in charge that she is not only as good as any of them, but by necessity, quite a bit better than most.

I genuinely enjoyed Elma in those novels. But I loved Nicole Wargin in The Relentless Moon. Where Elma is a scientist, Nicole is a politician. Elma is occasionally a rebel against the system of prejudice and low expectations of her world. Nicole has made of that system a game. Rather than slam her head against the wall, she seeks ways to make the wall move out of her path. She doesn’t always succeed, but when she does, she makes it impossible for men to ignore her.

The Relentless Moon takes place during the events of The Fated Sky. While Elma York is traveling to Mars, Nicole has to juggle being an astronaut with being the wife of a governor who is about to run for president. What’s worse, the terrorist group Earth First has began an active campaign of sabotage, trying to shut down the space program. Now Nicole finds herself trapped on the Moon colony, uncertain of her allies, and racing against invisible enemies whose misguided fight for Earth might doom humanity to extinction.

The Relentless Moon is a solid departure from the tone of the previous novels. Where those were focused on the success of vast undertakings, the new entry is more of a detective thriller. The main characters are trapped in a place where survival is highly dependent on technology, knowing that some of the people with them are actively trying to sabotage it. The story jumps from one disaster to the next, as Nicole tries to figure out the plans of Earth First, while her husband fights a much larger version of the same fight back on the homeworld.

I loved this book. It presents a very real aspect of The Lady Astronaut series — the knowledge that not everyone will get to leave Earth, and what that does to humanity. Nicole is a sharper, less scrupulous character than Elma, capable of decisions that would shock her friends. She also struggles with anorexia, and the story doesn’t shy away from describing that. But more than anything else, she is exactly the person for the job. Kowal uses her brilliantly to tackle problems her original protagonist never could. The shift in perspective matches the shift in genre, making the novel a fast-paced and engaging read.

I don’t know how much room there is in this universe for more stories. But if The Relentless Moon is any indication, Mary Robinette Kowal is capable of taking it in completely unexpected directions, and I genuinely hope she returns to it. In the mean time, this novel is a firm recommendation from me.

Reading Update 07/08/20 – Broken People

My one and only experience visiting Los Angeles was very contradictory. There is a profound sense of nihilistic romanticism about this city. A glorified shallowness that translates into some kind of higher purpose loneliness. Yet, even during the winter holiday season, it was mostly just hot and spread out. More a network of suburbs than a coherent city. On a day-to-day level, the experience was a bit boring, mostly dedicated to endless Uber rides.

And the lack of bookstores was a surprising drain on my psyche.

At the same time however, there was a curious static charge in the air. Hollywood. The movies. The history of the movies. We took several studio tours, and I loved every second of them. LA lives and breathes its conceit, and it makes you believe in it, whether you want to, or not. A couple of years later, I struggle to recall the things that bothered me about the city. The memory has acquired a patina of romance and timeless melancholia. Up until now, I had even forgotten how literally nobody in that place can whip up a decent Bloody Mary!

I promise I am going somewhere with this wildly long prelude. I was listening to a recent episode of Crooked Media‘s podcast Keep It, featuring an interview with author Sam Lansky. Something about the way he talked about his new semi-memoir-semi-fictional novel Broken People resonated with me. It brought my own feelings about LA, despite the obvious differences between me and him. Lansky’s youth, spent back in New York City before he moved across coasts, is way more dramatic than mine. In fact, our experiences have little in common on pretty much every level.

But the “anxious late 20s/early 30s gay” voice ensnared me immediately.

I am only two chapters into the book so far, but this voice is so wonderfully clear, and it evokes so many of the feelings I both had, and have absorbed through media about LA, that I am already in love with it. It’s not really the type of work I review on this blog, but if it inspires something more, I still might, once I finish the book.

Working on the Craft: Invisible Woman

We are now entering a section of Kiteley’s The 3 A.M. Epiphany that has the potential to cause some cringe. Titled “Men and Women”, it explores gender dynamics through a very… um… potentially traditional way. To be fair to Kiteley, he wrote this book 15 years ago, and it is based on exercises developed even earlier. Furthermore, he does actually make the point that these gender notions are societally enforced, rather than biological. Still, I will navigate the exercises in the section with caution.

With that in mind, I found this one interesting. “Invisible Woman” asks us to write a short scene of a woman becoming invisible for unexplained reasons. The focus is on what she does, how she interacts with a world that no longer sees her, and how different that is from her normal life (if at all). We all know the creepy violating fantasy of an invisible man. Would a woman from our present day society act differently? This is what I came up with.


I look down and see nothing. It is discombobulating for a moment, as my eyes seem to be floating some five feet above ground. I almost topple over, before the sensation of my feet firmly planted on the concrete of the alley – teehee – grounds me.

Hysteria. Possibly a problem. Oh well.

On that note, I don’t have to worry about losing weight now, so that’s a plus. Though to be fair, I wasn’t that worried about it before either.

I look around. Normal streets on both ends of the alley. Downtownish area, a bit north maybe. I have biked around here plenty of times, and coming out onto an actual street will likely tell me all I need to know to orient myself.

So I am the only confusing thing left. Somehow invisible. Good job. Repercussions to follow, though for now I am in survival mode. Which in my case translates into calm, reasoned, analytical, proactive.

If this is a temporary condition, might as well have some fun with it. If it is permanent, might as well have some fun with it before the existential dread settles in.

But what can I do with invisibility? I can be a creep. Sneak into my gym and troll the showers, see all those ridiculously sculpted dudebros vulnerable and unaware. But this feels somehow… bleak. As I am presented with the possibility, I realize no part of me gets off on voyeurism or control. I am almost disappointed by the discovery. What good is the creepiest of superpowers (let’s go with that description for the moment) if I don’t want to be a creep?

Oh well.

There is all the other personal stuff. If I am close to downtown, then my douchey trust-fund baby ex’ place is nearby. It wouldn’t be too hard to get past the doorman, then wait until his cleaning lady or whatever other bourgeois services he employs lets me inside the condo.

And then what? We’ve been definitely-no-longer-a-thing for over a year. What am I gonna catch him do? Have sex with some other girl? Say something racist to his other trust-fund baby friends? Buy stocks, or whatever it is trust-fund babies do?

As I come out onto the street, and figure out exactly where I am, I head north, still no target in mind. Unconsciously, my eyes go up and to the right, and I actually see the top of his fancy building in-between rooftops. This gives me pause. Okay, so it’s been a while, I no longer have emotional attachments to him. The scars are tastefully faded, the self-recriminations of my own stupidity have abated. But what if I’d dumped him last week instead? Would I have wanted to go through with haunting his ass then? More than haunt? I’ve seen the movies – I know how dark this can get.

I tear my eyes away from the building, just in time to avoid slamming into someone walking directly into my face. I lose my balance and nearly plop head-first into a trash can.

Right. Invisible. Pedestrian quantum mechanics don’t apply to me right now. People will literally try to walk through me.

So, no general creepiness, and no personal creepiness. What’s left?

Crime.

Can I steal something? Break some law? I rack my brains for a moment, but nothing comes up. Sure, I could use some extra money. Or clothes. Or, frankly, a new laptop. But I don’t think I have it in me to take stuff I didn’t earn. The one thing I’d love to take care of, is my stupid student loans, and invisibility won’t help with that. And as for laws… I think about another assault on female reproduction that the old MEN on the Supreme Court just vomited on the country last week. If I lived anywhere close to DC, I might be tempted to revisit the idea of haunting and worse. But I can’t do much about it from Chicago.

Now that I think of it, I can’t really travel anywhere if I’m invisible. Unless I feel like walking.

Yikes.

So, to recap. I have somehow gained a power so many dream of, and have found absolutely nothing to do with it. Invisibility ultimately amounts to violation, and I am just not the violating kind. For a moment, I consider offering my services to the government.

Right. Hysteria again.

It is almost anti-climactic when I realize that I have gained an outline – semi-transparent shimmer delineating the boundaries of my body. With every step I take, I gain more and more color and texture. People around me don’t seem to notice the no-longer-invisible woman materializing in their midst.

Was this a test? Did I pass? I am waiting for the existential dread to kick in. But even as I feel the anxiety building up in the back of my mind, I realize, it doesn’t matter whether I passed, or not. I had absolute freedom, and I choose to do nothing with it. There’s something to unpack with my therapist.

I walk up the street, and I start whistling.

Taking a Day Off

Not much to add to the title. Life has been a series of curve balls covered in barbed wire, and I am exhausted. Will make sure to be back to regularly scheduled blogging next week.

(Retro) Review: A Civil Campaign

I knew I had to write this review the moment I finished the book. Obviously, it is nowhere near current. In fact, as of this year, A Civil Campaign can drink legally in the United States. But it is just so incredibly unique in its place in Lois McMaster Bujold’s ouvre, and I enjoyed it so much, that I had to share.

Some housekeeping. While I won’t spoil the specific plots of previous novels, chronologically this is the 12th book in the Vorkosigan Saga. I cannot talk about it without referring to character developments that are likely to spoil some significant moments in the series. But with that said, if you are even remotely interested in reading this review, you are obviously up to speed.

Okay. Here goes.

A Civil Campaign is an impossible book. It shouldn’t exist, and if it were written by a lesser writer, it wouldn’t work. However, it is also possibly the best installment in the entire series. Bujold describes it as “A Comedy of Biology and Manners”. It centers around an upcoming wedding, intertwining several characters’ wacky romances and a number of political sub-plots, also of the wink-wink variety.

The reason why this does not crash and burn, when placed within a military space opera context, is simple. We care. Lois McMaster Bujold has built these complex characters and their relationships within story after story that focused on adventure and mortal danger. Now, she gets to have them relax (well, not really) and just have fun.

(But not Ivan. Never Ivan. Fuck Ivan in particular.)

(…Poor Ivan)

And if we’ve made it this far, we want to see this. Sure, we know how Miles interacts with his psychotic clone brother Mark when the stakes are life and death. But who doesn’t want to know what their relationship is like when living under the same roof, and dealing with an infestation of genetically engineered bugs that produce butter? Or their perspective on each other’s absurdist love life?

Add to that a Vor lord who finds out that he is part Cetagandan Ghem. Then a Vor lady who goes to Beta Colony for a sex change operation, so she could inherit her dead brother’s countship. Now we have political stakes as the Council of Counts must vote on these, and the picture is complete.

Yet, at the same time, A Civil Campaign is a mature work that does not skip character building. The budding romance between Miles and Ekaterin is a glorious portrait of a hyperactive neurotic and a world-weary intellectual, both of whom have trouble realizing that they are really on the same page. Mistakes are made. Some of them hilarious. Some — meaningful. All of them gorgeously written.

A Civil Campaign also features a lot of parenting. We’ve known Aral, Cordelia, and the Koudelkas since before Miles was born. Now we get to see them dealing with the next generation becoming adults in their own right. The result is a mixture of fascination and exasperation. Hilariously, and thanks to Ekaterin’s son Nikki, even Emperor Gregor gets to do a bit of parenting. Which really completes some kind of circle of life that I am not even sure how to describe.

All in all, A Civil Campaign is a flawless work of fiction. It relies on the reader’s love of its world, and the characters whose relationships are interwoven throughout it. And the reader, if they know what’s good for them, does not let Bujold down. At least this reader didn’t. This book is literal therapy, and I cannot recommend it enough, if you’ve read the previous novels and some-crazy-how stopped yourself before delving into this one.

Reading Update 06/29/20 – Vorkosigan Saga

I am almost there! With the completion of A Civil Campaign, I am only one novel away from being finally done with the part of the series I had read as a teenager. Even though I also went through Ethan of Athos — another novel in the universe that I’d never read — this will mark the end of the “Re” portion of my reading adventure.

First, however, as suggested by this here page, I began Falling Free — the 200-years-earlier prequel story on the creation of the Quadies. The edition of the audiobook I stumbled on is pretty terrible. Both the man and woman reading it, do so in an extremely low, mumbling register, which means that literally any sound drowns their voices even with noise-canceling earphones. But as far as the book itself goes, I have no complaints so far.

Next is Diplomatic Immunity. What comes after that, is the portion of the late novels I have never read. Those have gotten mixed reviews, but I am hopeful. A Civil Campaign was far bigger delight than even my vague memories suggested. I am riding this high to the bitter end!