Sunday Story Time: By the Hand That Casts It

I don’t know about you, but I would never have suspected a flower shop, a place for delicate displays of desire, to be the location of a deadly duel. This elegant story by Stephanie Charette in one of the (sadly) last issues of Shimmer sold me on the idea from the moment the first obnoxiously self-absorbed client enters florist Briar Redgrave’s domain. By the Hand That Casts It makes the best of its Victorian setting, with a snarky heroine in retirement (yay for retired leading ladies!), contrasted by a flamboyant second main character (of the kind we all know and roll our eyes at), and plenty of shadowy secrets hiding away under polished surfaces. It felt like a very different coming-of-age-story to me, one that is maybe unique to female biographies. And I loved the intimate setting full of subtle rules and agreements hemming in the heroine from all sides, while she holds the shears in her hands all the time.

You can find By the Hand That Casts It in Shimmer #45, and read the story here, or buy the whole issue here.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

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This scene might sum up the essence of Star Wars: The Clone Wars for me, the soon-to-be seven seasons of galactic goodness depicting the events between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. It’s not from one of the greatest episodes, not even one in any form essential to the overarching plot. (None of them are. That’s part of the magic!) But it captures the colourful abundance and diversity of Star Wars, the light-hearted, sense-of-wonder-tickling approach The Clone Wars takes to its somber themes.

Ahsoka TanoAnd trust me, The Clone Wars is heavy stuff, especially for a show aimed at a younger audience. We all know what happens to hotshot hero Anakin Skywalker, and to those many, many Jedi and their faithful clone regiments. One of the great accomplishments of The Clone Wars is its exploration of the tragedy in the making, a tragedy that never worked in RotS on screen (the novelization by Matthew Stover does a much better job): a war lost from the beginning, an order of old not able to adapt as an institution (although filled with well-meaning, clever individuals), a fine hero slowly descending into darkness with no one to stop him, an army of misused men disconnected from the society they are defending, only to be utterly betrayed in the end.

I heard the words “Clone Wars” for the first time in 1977 Star Wars, and a whole range of exciting possibilities popped up in my mind then. When it turned out to be endless rows of Jango Fetts taking it out on endless rows of droids in AotC, it was a whole platter of meh with a dash of disillusion. Enter The Clone Wars: boy, did it deliver on the promise of a sweeping, epic conflict!

The first season isn’t quite there yet, though. And even later, the villains are often at their most cackling villainy, the droids are mostly walking, clanking jokes, and I can tell you I had a bad feeling about some overused one-liners. But the show finds its stride, evolving into multi-episode story-arcs and displaying a broad range of themes and genres – some episodes are pure fun and wonderful weirdness, some are super serious war narratives, or force mysticism fables, or games of political intrigue, or they pay homage to cinematic moments from Jaws to The Seven Samurai. Not all the things director Dave Filoni and his writing team experimented with were right up my alley, but I found something to like in most of the 121 episodes – even the ones featuring *gasp* Gungans!

Great, it’s gonna be another one of those planets.
– Clone pilot Warthog

The plots are not overly complex. You’ll often know how a story will go, because it’s just a Star Wars spin on something you’ll recognize. But there are twists and turns and a lot of fun along the way. Character development is always on spot and features awesome original characters like Jedi Padawan Ahsoka, Clones in many different flavors, Sith assassin Ventress, and a bunch of colorful bounty hunters. There’s a whole parade of well-written female characters, and there’s even a nice diverse subtext in this galaxy teeming with aliens of all shapes and sizes. Take the Aleena from “another one of those planets”: they are seen at various times as background characters, and while they look like a bad ringtone ad from the 90s, apart from tribal warriors on flying mantis mounts, they can also be drunken ladies on Coruscant, traveling artists, or even Jedi.

Fauna of Wasskah, Star Wars

Then again, I’m not among those who get annoyed by “those planets”. I grew up on the Ewoks animated series, after all.

The Jedi, by the way, are not exactly the good guys, not as a whole. The Clone Wars introduces a lot of greys to the Star Wars moral landscape; you could even say it drops the good-vs-evil premise completely as the war muddies all moral absolutes very effectively. Some story-arcs feature a surprisingly strong anti-war message, and the clones are the perfect stand-ins for the dehumanizing and deindividualizing nature of war.

Apart from that, The Clone Wars greedily gobbles up everything that was in the SW universe up till then, while adding a lot more, without neglecting to keep the audience grounded with a sense of place and coherence in the galaxy far, far away (looking accusingly at you, Disney era Star Wars!)

The background details (advertisments, graffiti etc.) are beyond awesome!

As this was the last major contribution to the Star Wars canon with George Lucas at the helm of Lucasfilm, these were the stories he wanted to tell, and they show he still knew how to spin a yarn, with Dave Filoni & Co. doing the heavy-lifting to make this serialized approach to the epic formula shine. You can clearly see how much thought and love went into the details, into the animation, and into the development of an awe-inspiring number of narrative strands weaving in and out of the main storyline about the fall of the Republic and the Jedi.

The Clone Wars is notoriously told non-chronologically (but it might be a good idea to watch it in the correct order). Somehow, it works anyway as an episodic war narrative at dozens of locations, coming together to form an extensive mosaic of worlds, characters, factions, and action. It manages to walk the thin line between rollicking pulp adventure and drama with admirable grace. This is Star Wars at its best, in a galaxy brimming with strange life, with its animation ever more beautiful, and its punches aimed at your guts ever more violent. Most violent, perhaps, when you realize the show was canceled in favor of Rebels without tying up even one of its numerous loose ends. I’m hyped for the revival, of course, but twelve new episodes seem awfully short to finish the stories I’d be interested in.

Even unfinished, The Clone Wars is worth watching. Are you a jaded Star Wars fan who wants to fall in love anew? Or do you adore all the movies and want more? The Clone Wars has got you covered. Give some love to the clones! Give some love to Ahsoka Tano (naturally)! Maybe even give a little bit of love to Anakin Skywalker!
Reconcile with the prequel era, you want. Search your feelings.
Embo on Scipio, Star Wars

Thou shalt have no other stories …

After another few months spent in translator-bot mode, producing daily word-counts I can only dream of as a writer, I have some thoughts about writing and having a day job as a freelancer in the publishing industry at the same time. It seems like a dream situation – to gain a foothold, to learn the business … and when I started this line of work over 10 years ago, it was a dream job. Second best thing to publishing my own stuff. A chance to work with words, with languages and their intricacies, in the genres and with the authors I loved. Translating has always been very close to my heart – it’s a special kind of approach to a text and can be extremely rewarding (for everyone involved, yay!).

Some aspects didn’t turn out quite the way I had hoped for, but that’s a different story. A job closely connected to writing is, in some ways, a major boost for writing. I learned a great deal about language and how to construct stories while translating superb novels, and then some more by editing not-so-superb-yet novels. The moment you have to propose a solution when something isn’t good enough, a vague feeling of “I don’t like it” just doesn’t do. You have to get to the root of the problem, and that makes you see what will work and what won’t.

So I doubt I’d be able to write the way I do without my job, without being surrounded by professional words and stories daily.

But.

My own words inevitably dry up when I am deep in the translating game. I’m surrounded by another person’s story and strive to get into its style, mood, tone. If I try to start writing then, I might end up emulating the thing I’m working on at the moment.

Mostly I don’t even try: I simply can’t bring myself to hack out another word on my keyboard after I already spent 6 hours straight doing just that. Braindead. Daily amount of words used up. Instinct for stories vaporized.

I’m aware that the majority of writers out there are writing in their free time, and surely there’s no shortage of jobs eating your brain. I’m in awe of everyone who sits down to tell their story anyway.

I seem to be at a point where my day job isn’t producing synergies for writing anymore, or even just some (mildly lucrative) background noise; it has turned counterproductive. I guess that’s mostly because I’m working and writing in exactly the same genres. It’s just so close to my own words, and if I want to do it justice, I have to live the to-be-translated text in the same way I have to live my own stories. So my own writing is always relegated to the backburner.

Add in the precarious nature of freelancing, which makes you inclined to always take on another rush job, another project, because there’s no way to know whether and when the next thing might come up. And soon there is no room left for your own stories to unfold. I can relate to every writer who just wants an unobtrusive, not-too-demanding job.

What I do now, accompanied by a lot of anxiety, is decline some jobs. And try to shift a certain portion to other modes and genres, mostly non-fiction, to create synergies again. (But who am I kidding here – offer me a cool science fiction or fantasy project, and I’ll bite).

So, fair warning: having a second dream job apart from writing might not be the best strategy for producing a lot of words, especially if said dream job is, well, also writing, just for other people in another language.

Do what you love and you'll work super fucking hard all the time with no separation or any boundaries and also take everything extremely personally

This has been all over the place recently … I simply had to add it. (from adamjk’s Instagram )

Reanimation

Hey, what have you been up to since November, Simone?
November, huh? It’s been so long, I even need a lousy fake interview set-up to get these rusty gears going.
Mostly, I’ve been a good little translator-bot. I translated a net total of 532,000 words of text, fiction and non-fiction, one of them an epic MCU in-universe encyclopaedia which nearly killed me with its legions of weapons and gadgets, half of them real things, half of them Marvel inventions (yeah, thanks for nothing, Captain America!). I copy-edited a smaller amount, about 364,000 words, also fiction and non-fiction, one of them an epic DC Comics encyclopaedia which nearly drove me crazy with its (sorry, DC) stupid timelines. Superheroes galore for me!
I read 25 books as a judge of the Seraph (original works) and the Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis (translated works), both German sff awards. I co-conceptualized and co-hosted an awesome three-day workshop about storytelling as a tool for photographers with my camera-wielding partner in crime Chrononauts Photography.
And I last-minute-applied for Viable Paradise, because it sounded like pure workshop goodness. Which turned out very well so far: I don’t think I have ever experienced such a warm (virtual) welcome anywhere.

Did you write stories?
I wrote a thing for my VP application. Next step: improving my miserable story/workshop ratio. Feeling like the fraud of frauds here …

But you did write something, somewhere, didn’t you?
I didn’t even do much social media. Just work, eat and see to it that my back won’t give out, work again and then some more, sleep, repeat. Every single day (I had three free days over Easter, yay!). It felt like a never-ending nightmare, and that’s why I’m taking some time off now. Otherwise things would become an endless slog towards self-annihilation. Not cool.

What about stories, passive mode?
I didn’t read much apart from the nominated titles for the awards. There was T. Kingfisher’s romance/rpg adventure novelization hybrid Clocktaur Wars, which I thoroughly enjoyed (gonna write more about that one). I went to the movies a few times, to avoid becoming a hermit and such: I liked The Shape of Water – not the deep story about encountering the Other I expected from the trailer; but a beautifully shot film about misfits. Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok where my favorite MCU movies so far, one for its vision and coolness, and the other for combining heroics and fun.
I played some Overwatch. I also played Fortnite, but that was for a job (and it’s probably not my cup of tea). Ah, but now, as this full-frontal march towards burnout is at its end, I’ve been reading nice things again. A short story collection by Roger Zelazny. What a feast! I started reading the Sword and Sonnet anthology recently. And after that, Murderbot vol. 3 is waiting for me. Oh, and I picked up Divinity 2 again, so good (gonna write about it).

What now?
There’s still some editing work and small jobs to do. Probably should be looking for bigger jobs, too, but apart from that, I feel like I could sleep a whole month.
Most of all, I miss my lizards and robots and powerful ladies, and my random ramblings about stories and stuff. But I’m beginning to find back to my own words, so stay tuned. Winter is coming! Again! Ugh, this has been a long time off …

Sunday Story Time: Scaredy Cat

This is the Halloween edition, and today’s story morsel is a tiny webcomic made by Heather Franzen in 2012, Scaredy Cat. I love the idea of silent comics, and this kitten’s nocturnal adventures really don’t need any words. No jump-scares or other or other terrifying stuff here; the only thing you’ll need to be afraid of is immense cuteness!

You’ll find the comic on Heather Franzen’s Tumblr, and on the artist’s website, she’s offering a printed version.

Small Crush: Blade Runner 2049

I realized how often I must have seen Blade Runner (all the different cuts, too) when I sat down for its 2049 incarnation and felt compelled to watch out for a myriad little details, to see if they where different, if they were just a stale rip-off, or something else. Blade Runner 2049 was a movie that couldn’t possibly win from my perspective: I wanted it to be the same, and I wanted it to be vastly different. Most of all I didn’t want it to be like all those awful sequels I had to mentally disengage myself from over the last years.

I would have been shocked to learn that it did work out after all, only I didn’t have the attention to spare: I was glued to the screen for nearly all of its close to three hours. You’d expect to grow impatient with its meditative pace, but there’s so much tension from the beginning, so much going on under the surface of those poetic images that I almost never felt it lingered too long. It’s the much needed trust in your story and the engagement of your audience’s thoughts that so many other movies lack. It provides the blank spaces and the time you need to tell your own story. Its use of light and color, objects and scenery is powerful, but never heavy-handed.

And the nods to the original are subtle, not the bland rebranded quotes we’ve come to expect. They’re mostly in the visuals and thematic variations. I’m not sure if the story would work entirely on its own, without the groundwork of the first film. To me, it doesn’t matter, because the themes of Blade Runner were extrapolated upon in meaningful ways and adapted to our age of late capitalism and hidden slavery.

But – here come the nitpicks – in 2049, the Blade Runner world still runs on patriarchy. It’s a white man’s (or male replicant’s) world with beautiful virtual girlfriends and replicant sex workers, all there to be enjoyed by our hero. But what if Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright as another complex, super tough woman, yeah) walks home after an exhausting day on the job and wants a come-on from a hot giant holo-boy? Didn’t see one of those lounging in the bleak urban canyons …

And while we’re at it: for Wallace (Jared Leto as another overdone lunatic, meh), I couldn’t see any motivation, he was just your off-the-shelf self-absorbed tech tycoon and his were the only scenes where I wished the film would have mercy and just move on. Bespectacled and mickey-mouse-hairlined Tyrell wins this one easily.

There was no Roy Batty and no tears in the rain either, and that’s a flaw in every movie out there – but apart from that, Blade Runner 2049 was so much more than I had hoped for: a feast of muted colors and beautiful cinematography, an exploration of humanity and its relationship with the other(ed), a story to take away some overwhelming artificial memories from.

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Fun fact: This trailer seems to tell a somewhat diverging story, differently emphasized. I can’t see how this would be better, but let those gazillion different cuts come already!

My Primal Apocalypse

It all began with Gremlins.

When I was a child, VCR was the shiny new gadget you needed to have. Well-meaning, but ill-informed, my father brought home Gremlins as one of the very first rentals.

I wasn’t old enough to read stories on my own then (and to choose from any shelf I wanted to), so I had mostly encountered children’s stories. Gremlins might have started like a totally acceptable children’s story, but it soon turned out to be pure horror for me.

Gremlins movie posterI didn’t even make it very far, and my father, who must have felt that I was a little bit too terrified, sent me to bed before it got wild. Which was a bad decision. I knew that suspiciously cute Gizmo would turn into something nasty, and I had learned the rules: The thing with the water and the thing with the feeding. I got it all mixed up when I applied my own logic to the concept: So they turn nasty and grow bigger and multiply when they get wet and eat? You can get wet anytime. And they are monsters, so they’d want to eat people, and BAM! They become even bigger and nastier!

I didn’t only lie awake the whole night in terror. Over the next few days, my imagination led me into a desolate, dark future, where fat, ugly, grown-huge-as-houses Gremlins roamed the streets, looking for more people to feed upon. I thought about how I would sneak through the shadows to hide from them. I felt a little better when I realised that at some point, they would have eaten most of us. Then they wouldn’t find anything else, and the cycle of feeding and growing and multiplying would come to an end. But most of the time, I was half crazy with fear. It could happen anytime. It would be the end.

It couldn’t have been too long until my father noticed something was wrong, but as I remember it, I spent something like a fortnight silently descending into fear and depression. At some point, my father reassured me it was just a movie. A funny movie, even. And it had a happy ending.

But it didn’t matter. I knew now. I knew that something like this could happen, that the world as we knew it could end. That everything could (and would) be gone. And it terrified me.

But it also fascinated me. It was my first what-if extrapolation, my first post-apocalyptical world. I don’t think my final disaster scenario had a lot to do with Gremlins anymore. But until today, I haven’t watched the whole movie, and every time I see a picture of those little pests, they give me the creeps. Even the “real” gremlins, the mechanically inclined imps, make me shudder because they remind me of them. But I’m not entirely sure whether I should condemn director/writer team Joe Dante and Chris Columbus (and my father, I guess) for introducing existential crisis into my life, or thank them for fueling my doom-driven imagination.

Sunday Story Time: The Secret Life of Bots

With the Secret Life of Bots by Suzanne Palmer, I came for the title and had my eyes glued to the screen from the moment Bot 9 is activated and given a (rather domestic) job on a starship with a (rather crucial) mission. It is a beautiful, fun, and fast-paced story you don’t want to miss if you have ever suspected appliances might have feelings, too.

While exploring the diversified bot population of the ship (always operating within well-defined parameters), Suzanne Palmer keeps you grounded: Familiar space opera/military sf tropes are used as a mere backdrop … until they aren’t.

You can follow the adventures of amiable busy-bot 9 on Clarkesworld #132 (also podcasted). And don’t forget to put Steve Jablonsky’s Transformers soundtrack to good use for the finale of this stellar story!

Small Crush: Paper Girls (Vol. 1)

Brian K. Vaughan has written so many interesting comic stories that he was bound to show up here eventually. Some of them I love (Pride of Baghdad will get an entry, too!), some I found intriguing, but they didn’t draw me in.

Paper Girls Vol. 1Paper Girls immediately got me by reminding me of two other immensely popular tales: Like Stranger Things it features teenage heroes riding bikes and getting involved in fantastical and mysterious events, and it seems to hop on the train of 80s nostalgia. Like Lumberjanes, it’s focussed on friendships between girls and shows what a girl gang is capable of, even when confronted with the most improbable events straight out of the cheesiest b-movie inventory.

Paper Girls transcends them both. While the combination of space age and suburban life provides a charming backdrop for the events, the ongoing story doesn’t get stuck in the 80s formula. And there is a distinct sf feel from the beginning, anchoring the onslaught of the supernatural we soon face.

What I liked most – besides the brilliant before-sunrise color scheme – were the characters. Paper Girls develops four very different girls into firmly grounded heroines, without adhering to common types and clichés. Tiffany, the geek, is teenage girl first and geek second, and I’d even hesitate to call her “the geek”, because she’s drawn as a human with many facets (and all four girls are geeks). They have poignant, sometimes shockingly sad backgrounds, and their tough decisions and hasty reactions when their neighbourhood is beleaguered by more than leftover stragglers from Halloween feel all too real. As do the consequences of their actions.

I’m curious about where the story will end up, and I hope there’s at least a half-decent plot in the end. But for the moment, I want to see more of Cliff Chiang’s rad art, and enjoy what turned out to be the most relatable and likeable girl gang of all the all-female casts I encountered in the sf comics field recently.

Sunday Story Time: Crab

A mean, old, very short animated video from Birdbox Studio. Yes, I’m easily amused. Especially by creatures with eyestalks.

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