Back in college, I used to keep a sticky note attached to my laptop titled “Things Chris Mahon Believes In”. In order, they were:
Ursula LeGuin’s “Wizard of Earthsea”
Neon Genesis Evangelion
The sticky note was there to anchor me, and remind me why I do what I do. I used to read and write a lot about moral philosophy, and a lot of my writing is still informed by that, but day-to-day, I always found myself returning to stories for inspiration and a reason to get out of bed.
Thanks to Outer Places (the sci-fi website where I work), I got to write a piece on my seven favorite sci-fi/fantasy movies and books for TSR’s blog, Multiverse! You can read the article here, but here’s the list:
Wizard of Earthsea
Dune by Frank Herbert
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard
Hogfather by Terry Pratchett
End of Evangelion
This list isn’t definitive, but it’s a good chunk of what I love. There’s no H.P. Lovecraft on there (because most of his work is short stories and novellas) or Paranoia Agent or Serial Experiments: Lain (both TV shows), nor is there any manga/graphic novels (Vagabond or Uzumaki or V For Vendetta or Prophecy), and I couldn’t include things like The Seventh Seal or Man of LaMancha because those films aren’t technically fantasy.
Still, it’s a good shortlist and amazingly cool that it’s been published. It’s now “ON THE RECORD.” Woop woop!
After sending in a pitch to Open Road Media’s new sci-fi/fantasy site The Portalist back in November, I wrote up a listicle on the 5 Most Elaborate Sci-fi Alternate History Books, including H.P. Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness, PKD’s Man in the High Castle, and William Gibson’s Difference Engine. Now it’s live on the Portalist site! Huzzah!
Today I also sent in my third non-fiction pitch to Clarkesworld Magazine on the topic of magic and worldbuilding in fantasy–we’ll see what they say. My last two essays with Clarkesworld were on “The Candlelit World,” about mythology’s influence on fantasy, then “Paradise Lost,” about the history of the genre. They’re a fantastic publication.
In the meantime, I’m still working on my new short story with Yute, incorporating some of the ideas I picked up from my new book on wabi-sabi and the Japanese tea ceremony.
Two weeks ago, I started writing for Outer Places, a website dedicated to science fiction and science. It’s been tremendously exciting to work with them, and it means I can continue funding my jetskiing, milk-drinking playboy superstar lifestyle here in New York by writing about some of the coolest news and scientific discoveries on the Internet. Why do I do it?
I wanted to share some of the articles I’ve written so far for Outer Places, not because I’m shilling for OP now, but because I’m actually proud of (and excited by) a few of them. Ignore the clickbait-y titles.
Six Sci-Fi Masterpieces That Put Insane Detail Into Things You Didn’t Notice
This one I actually wrote a couple years ago to be a Cracked listicle, before Cracked stopped doing those. It deals with Neon Genesis: Evangelion, Serial Experiments Lain, H.R. Giger’s Necronomicon, and Menton3’s Monocyte, along with Dune and Asimov’s short story Nightfall.
The Artist Behind the Death Star Talks About His Art & Life
This article came from a Reddit AMA today with Colin Cantwell, the man who designed the Millennium Falcon, Death Star, X-Wing, and a bunch of other starships in Star Wars. He also worked with Stanley Kubrick on 2001 and Walter Cronkite during the Apollo 11 moon landings.
A New Experiment Just Teleported a Particle and Pioneered the Quantum Internet
This one came from the University of Calgary, which apparently conducted research that may pave the way for long-distance communication using quantum entanglement. I snuck some references to Mass Effect 2 and Half-Life in there.
LIVESTREAM: Elon Musk Says We Need These Four Things to Colonize Mars
This was absolutely incredible. Today, Elon Musk got on a livestream and laid out plans to create a “self-sustaining city” on Mars, along with the four key concepts that need to be implemented to create an Interplanetary Travel System. What really struck me was that, during the question and answer period, Musk said that his two primary goals with the project were to keep human consciousness alive in the face of a planet-wide catastrophe (practical) and to create something to inspire us when we look toward our future (idealistic).
And for those of you who caught the debate last night, you all know who I’m voting for.
This is Vol. 3 of the Occult Reading list, where I collect all the interesting stories and strange pieces of trivia I’ve picked up over the past week from books, articles, and webpages. Also included are the songs that have been on repeat for me this week.
Guaranteed to make you more interesting at parties.
Disclaimer: There’s no conspiracy between me and New Retro Wave–I just listen to their songs all the goddamn time. But if they want to talk sponsorship deals, I’m down to sell out and get some of that sweet 80’s merch.
Trevor Something, give me a call. We’ll work something out.
THE Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu
This is the Hugo Award-winning sci-fi book by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu. It’s garnered some unreal praise, and I finally got around to reading it. So far, I’m 200 pages in and I’m not a fan. Putting aside the difficulties of translation, the plot and pacing are where the book comes up seriously short. So far, the plot has been a very choppy clockwork affair, with the main character essentially shuttling himself from place to place, listening to exposition, then periodically popping in to the VR world of Three Body. Every exposition scene happens almost back-to-back, with Wang Miao acting as a plot-automaton who decides, “hey, let’s give this person a call,” followed immediately by “let’s visit this person,” and then “they told me to visit this person, so let’s go here and speak to this person.” Rather than Jack Bauer in 24, who is propelled from place to place by desperation, gunfire, and a constant stream of new discoveries, the countdown Wang faces doesn’t drive the action, and the only thing Wang needs to do is go to places so people can talk at him. There’s no tension or challenge to ferreting out the information he needs, and the plot comes off as a series of mechanical scenes strung together without much attempt at subtlety or tension. The scene in which Wang discovers the murder of Shen Yufei and listens to the revelations of her husband are the worst perpetrators of this.
On top of the lackluster plotting, the video game world of Three Body ends up being a bizarre, pseudo-metaphorical dream sequence. Unlike Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse in Snow Crash or William Gibson’s Grid in Neuromancer, the rules and logic of the virtual world are opaque and confusing. Characters can randomly speed up the passage of time as it suits them, the logic and mechanics behind player dehydration are completely unexplained (do they go into spectator mode? Log out?), and it’s not even clear if the entities Wang is encountering are NPCs or players. The most baffling question is about advancement: the game revolves around trying to predict the movements of the sun, but a succession of players (if they’re indeed human players) seem to put forth antiquated versions of the solar system. No human player but the protagonist seems to contribute to the game or its advancement but the protagonist, who always arrives at exactly the right time to see the key developments.
I haven’t finished the book yet, but already I’m feeling like The Three Body Problem is going to be a monumental disappointment.
This is a nice survey of how different fantasy series have used language as the basis for magic systems (a topic I’ve written about in relation to both binary and poetry). It deals with the big-name franchises, including LoTR and Harry Potter, but also The Spellwright Trilogy and video games like Skyrim and Treasure of the Rudras.
I still remember opening up a book in Morrowind after clearing out a den of necromancers and reading about the Nords shouting down their enemies’ walls with the magic of their voices, and how the most powerful had to be gagged to keep their voices from destroying everything around them. At the time, I thought “They could never turn that into a real magic system. It’s cool flavor, though.”
So it was an awe-inspiring bash to the head to find out that that little, innocuous passage from the early 2000s was kept in mind across the development of Oblivion and brought to glorious fruition in a fully realized magical language and system in Skyrim. Next, I want to see the snake people from that one hidden continent!
This is a cool little post from V.E. Schwab, author of A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows, both of which I own (thanks, publishing friends!). Schwab touches on the difficulty of composing languages for a fantasy world, as well as the promise: she explains how the poetry and sound of language can reveal something about the nature of the world and its speakers, and how it can immerse a reader in the world of the story by forcing them “to learn as they go, just as travelers would, when passing through a foreign land.”
Schwab also touches on the dangers of fantasy languages: “Used poorly, fictional languages can feel like a wall, preventing all but the well-versed from feeling included in a world.” I’ve seen this pretty often, and it comes from the tricky management of a learning curve within the narrative, by which a reader learns about the world, the culture, and the events of the book. Introducing too much foreign information leads to alienation and frustration, like a mother spelling out words so she can speak over the head of a toddler. “Don’t you know what a ba’aleth is, reader? No? It’s very important.”
This is just a couple thoughts from Eric Honour, who has a page on Medium. It’s mostly some criticism on the simplicity and lack of verisimilitude that characterizes language and naming in fantasy. One thing he touches on is how monolithic language and names become when the creator just sits down and pushes two words together like a caveman, like “Iron Walker” or (my personal pet peeve term from Dune) “lasgun”. But one particular insight from Eric struck me:
“This is something that turns me off about a lot of fantasy. It’s also something that I can see is difficult to navigate — having multiple names for things is more realistic, but also can feel like it’s overwhelming the reader. Real-life historical names are full of metonymy and misapplication and the shifting sands of living language, and that’s a level of complexity that might not even be advantageous to a fictional world. But not even making the attempt feels sort of lazy.”
Something that the articles from Tor and V.E. Schwab also touch on is that language shifts and changes to reflect its culture and its world. To create a language, or even naming conventions for armies, you have to think about how words and people use and abuse terminology. A great example is military slang and acronyms like FUBAR, SNAFU, BDU, and MOPP, or the backronyms of gang culture. There’s something more than the denotative meaning of words, a kind of vitality to them, and that’s what a lot of fantasy writers gloss over.
“Just Like You (Hazy Mountains Remix)” by Chromatics
One of my top three favorites from the world of New Retro Wave, Just Like You is one of those haunting love songs that evokes the kind of otherworldly, illusory lover that ELO sang about in Yours Truly, 2095, or even the twisted virtual love in Bad Religion’s I Love My Computer. It’s a song wrapped up in nostalgia and ethereal, lovesick illusions, and the reverb clings to your mind like cobwebs. Most disturbing (or enticing) of all is the idea of a doppleganger, a lover who “looks just like you/he even says the same things/he even wears the same clothes,” who ultimately “loves like you used to.”
“The Glory” by Reapers
The Glory is another of my top three favorites from the good folks over at New Retro Wave (THERE IS NO SPONSORSHIP DEAL), and one of my favorite songs, period. The contrast between the low, dirge-like like chanting and the full-throated, almost plaintive rock-and-roll yelling of the chorus gives the whole song a sense of loss and bitterness. The lyrics, which seem to be an ode to death, end up making it the perfect song for people interested in the dark side of the 80’s.