Sunday Story Time: The Last Bastion

It’s time again for some story magic! This week, one of the animated short films accompanying Blizzard’s Overwatch came to my mind.
Of course you’ll already know Bastion, Overwatch‘s endearing killing machine, if you’re among the more than 25 million players. But even if you’ve never heard about the game, The Last Bastion will charm you. It is a self-contained, exquisitely beautiful film, evocative of Hayao Miyazaki’s masterworks with its overall themes and its lush green nature.

Enjoy, or watch it here on YouTube, and keep in mind: Overwatch the game is a completely different kind of fun (if you consider playing it right after having watched The Last Bastion …)

Small Crush: Senlin Ascends (Josiah Bancroft)

What if it’s too early to write a love letter (because I haven’t experienced the whole thing I’m smitten with yet or because I’m not sure if the crush will last)? I confide in you, of course: just some quick thoughts about stories that charmed me recently, about small crushes you might want to check out.

That said, Thomas Senlin, protagonist of Josiah Bancroft’s debut novel Senlin Ascends, is no charmer. He is as stiff as a poker and as cringeworthy as a deer on ice. You expect him to crash and drown any moment, and you’re not sure if you will miss him all that much, because he is incredibly prim and mostly unlikeable. Then, magic happens. Senlin loses his wife in the crowds on the first day of their honeymoon voyage to the famed Tower of Babel, a sprawling mass of people and vastly different levels called “Ringdoms”. And he stays determined to find her against all odds and learns to navigate the Tower, his only aid a tourist guidebook turning out to be a complete failure in the course of the events. It is not so much that Senlin changes (although he does, of course), but that you come to appreciate his stiff and prim qualities (and the flashes of sly humor underneath), because they make for a quirky and unique journey upwards, ever upwards.

Senlin AscendsDespite Senlin’s constant disillusionment and the grim observations about how the Tower wears down people and erodes even the last residues of morale, Senlin Ascends ends up to be a surprisingly upbeat tale. Maybe because it fails to be cynical, and it fails to be hopeless, although Senlin sure has reason for hopelessness at times.

At its heart, it is a tale of exploration, a journey into the unknown. The Tower is shrouded in mystery, and its inner workings are revealed only slowly, accompanied by some very clever twists and turns. Reading Senlin Ascends, I did realize I have a great fondness for stories showing me not one, but a series of worlds; a complete new society and environment at each level of the Tower in this case. (And I wonder, is there a name for this genre? Also found in Tad William’s Otherland, Gregory Frost’s Shadowbridge, or Philip José Farmer’s World of Tiers, among others.) But a series of worlds is nothing if you aren’t intrigued by the overarching connections, so let me tell you this: I can’t wait to read the next book!

And you, too, should enter the Tower of Babel in all its vastness and craziness and mysteriousness, and enjoy capable airship pirate ladies, a totally mad romp of a fight under the influence of drugs, and, equally thrilling, Bancroft’s beautiful prose and storytelling craftsmanship.

Sunday Story Time: The Gaeneviad

The internet is made of clickbait, hate and porn, they say. But it is also made of awesomesauce. Every Sunday, I’ll try to recommend one piece of the later – a comic, a short film or game, a short story, whatever grabs my attention. It won’t always be the hot new stuff that just hit the web. But it will be worth your time, I hope. And I will one day have an archive full of links to small story gems I really love. Win-win.

Let’s start with The Gaeneviad, a sweet little comic created at a 24-hour comic event at the comics festival of Angoulême 2015, featuring the Olympian Gods. It was drawn and written by French artist Boulet in just 24 hours and has 24 pages full of adorable characters and unexpected fun.
Check it out!

I wanna be Roy Batty

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

If you are the slightest bit into sf, the odds are pretty high that you not only know, but fiercely love the Tears in the rain monologue from Blade Runner. For me, it blew my mind when I was about 14 years old and watched the movie one night on my tiny TV. I was not only an sf fangirl back then, but was also very occupied with trying to wrap my mind around the concept of death at that time, so it spoke to me on every level.
I’ve heard and seen it quoted hundreds of times since then, up to the point where I’d actively avoid it in the hopes that it would never become trite to me. As the story goes, it was a genius piece of improvisation by Rutger Hauer.

And indeed, when I look at it now, what I see is a damn good storyteller.

So, if you think the magic is lost as soon as you know how a thing works, maybe now is the time to tiptoe out of the room and come back for the next post, because I’m going to look very closely at this quote.

Tears in the rain is not only a brilliant conclusion to an intense action sequence (and to the whole main story arc), but also a fine piece of micro-fiction. With these few lines, the universe of Blade Runner becomes so much bigger, promising things we could see, things out there, things transcending our bleak existence on Earth. That’s how you do evocative imagery and world-building, folks! C-beams? Sea-beams? What the hell are they even? Doesn’t matter, because we make up our own images. Our imagination does most of the heavy lifting here, but Roy’s words are the catalyst for the magic. No explanation needed. He knows. He has seen things. Good enough for our mind, it will gladly hop on the train to the stars now, thank you very much.

Also, with these lines, Roy’s life becomes narration, becomes a story in and on itself – the scenes we saw in the movie are maybe just a footnote (or more of an endnote) to something much larger. There are only hints, but they transform the character into something else altogether.
And Roy is transformed further by telling us the ending of his story, the ending of every story, ultimately, and giving the narration a metaphysical twist, especially considering his background.

Food for thought and food for imagination – philosophical impulse and evocative allusions – are the magic ingredients, and they are put to highly effective use here. I recommend a look at the two versions of the monologue, the one from the script and the improvised one from the movie (for example here at Wikipedia) to see that less is indeed more, and that the right words that glitter in the vast darkness approaching this scene from all sides are so much better than meticulous descriptions.

So, daring to transcend a concrete scene, and letting a strong narrator pull you in and unfold big spaces in your imagination makes for very convincing storytelling. I wouldn’t mind at all to be able to do it like Roy.

Digger (Ursula Vernon)

I fell in love with Digger on the first pages of the comic, where the eponymous wombat heroine heads straight into trouble by doing what she does best: digging a tunnel. Alas, this particular tunnel was no masterpiece, so she gets lost and finds herself in a strange new and utterly wombat-free land. It took me a while to realize that Digger was a heroine (those wombat boobs are kind of hard to spot when you don’t expect them …), and I absolutely loved the fact that “it” turned out to be a “she”. A big share of the powerful, cool and odd charaDigger - Ursula Vernoncters of this graphic novel turned out to be a she. It’s a revelation to meet such a gathering of fine and engaging female leads in an adventure story, among them Grim Eyes (a warrior from a matriarchal hyena tribe), Murai (a destined but troubled human heroine) and Surka (a shrew with a new calling).

Yes, that’s a lot of furries! They inhabit quirky and well-rounded societies; and against the bigger backdrop of the odd world Digger finds herself in (filled with useless oracular slugs and hero vegetables, among others), they seem like the most ordinary people whose lives are turned inside out.

Although Digger is a comic, there’s plenty of text, and most of it put a big smile on my face. Digger’s witty commentary on the events made me root for this practical, down-to-earth heroine. As she is hauled into a story of epic dimensions and – for a wombat – terrifying mythical and magical qualities, her deadpan comments keep everything grounded. Aren’t we all wombats here, far from our comfort zone and thankful for every remark to put things into perspective?

What good is a god that does not fossilize?
– Digger

Digger is indeed somehow reminiscent of Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, and, while we’re at it, also of Jeff Smith’s Bone (in structure and premise). Both of these could inspire a love letter of their own, so for me that’s a big fat bonus. Snarky jokes, witty comments on religion, mythic overtones and sheer epicness aside, Digger goes right into the feels with its unusual cast of characters. It explores themes like domestic violence and ethical education in a graceful, unobtrusive way – and that’s something I have rarely seen done in fiction.

I stumbled upon Digger quite late – it had been published completely then (so I could just tear through reading day and night), it had won its Hugo Award, and it had – to my great disappointment – already finished its crazily successful crowdfunding campaign for a printed omnibus edition (which I still got afterwards, so not all was lost …). I’ve read it multiple times since then. After the first rush of excitement, I’m now able to fully appreciate what an effort it must have been to finish this huge, unwieldy thing. At nearly 900 pages, you need quite a solid table to read the omnibus edition. If they would offer a digital edition someday, I’d go for it immediately, as much as I love to have the big tome with the pickaxe on my shelf.

But back to the travails of the fabulous Ursula Vernon, creator of Digger. It was published as a webcomic, an unplanned work of someone with nearly no experience in the graphic novel field (see this old, old interview). The way the story unfolds, this is quite unbelievable. Kudos to Ursula, for pulling it off over the course of years without getting tangled up in the plot. Yes, there are some meandering parts of the story, but they fit into the whole quirky style and add depth instead of dragging on.
Digger - Ursula Vernon
So, Digger. One of the best things that happened in my life. It showed me how strong female characters could really look like and how the best thing in fantasy still is to get thrown into a world where anything can happen. Not that Digger would approve of it. But I do, a lot, and love this marsupial fiction with all my heart. Or with all my liver, if you’re more inclined to the hyena side of life.

Digger (Ursula Vernon)
Webcomic: 2004 – 2011: start reading here
Omnibus: Sofawolf Press 2013
Paperback (6 volumes): Sofawolf Press 2005-2011

Setting sail

I need a place to share my love of stories (and good storytelling) in all their incarnations and talk about translating and writing speculative fiction, which is what I do because there are never enough good stories. And because I’m allowed to work at home at odd hours wearing jammies.

So stay tuned.