Altered Carbon and Looking Back at Cyberpunk’s Heyday

Copyright © 2018 by Netflix

It’s never been a secret that one of my favorite genres is cyberpunk. It’s the best of two worlds: film noir and science fiction. It’s holographic adverts overloading giant, rain-drenched skyscrapers, where private eyes go chasing androids and console cowboys get shanghaied into unraveling megacorporate conspiracies in virtual reality zones. And while I regret never getting into the original books by Richard K. Morgan, I was excited to learn that his first Takeshi Kovacs story, Altered Carbon, was being brought onto Netflix.

The year is 2384. Takeshi Kovacs, a former terrorist, is revived in a new body 250 years after his arrest. His new client, the ultra-rich Laurens Bancroft, has a job for him: solve the murder of Bancroft’s last body. Now stuck in far-future San Francisco, Kovacs has to contend with mercenaries, possessive AI hotel owners, femme fatales, and the relentless police lieutenant Kristin Ortega. Every new encounter is another opportunity for Kovacs to come to terms with the crimes he’s committed in the distant past, to put his elite skills as an Envoy to use, and to dig deeper into the labyrinthe world of “Meths” (as in, Methuselahs). As his onetime mentor Quell keeps reminding him, “Nothing is what it seems.

It’s interesting to have the main character, Takeshi Kovacs, played by both an Asian actor (Will Yun Lee) in flashbacks and a white actor (Joel Kinnaman) in the present. On the one hand, it’s a neat trick of showing off our multicultural future, even race is something to be changed with a simple “resleeve.” On the other hand, I kind of would’ve liked to have seen Lee stay in the lead role, but Kinnaman does the job well enough as our typical hardboiled detective with elite combat skills and a supernatural attention to detail.

Now, as a fan of all things cyberpunk, I love the visuals (and as someone who wants to make cyberpunk fiction, I’m jealous I didn’t get to do this first). Bay City is a beautiful mess of heavy rainfall, omnipresent holographic ads, flying cars, cybernetic neck and eye implants, and massive skyscrapers reaching into the clouds. It’s like we’re getting to see the Sprawl that Gibson envisioned back in ’84, since that’s basically the archetype that Richard K. Morgan and Laeta Kalogridis are using in this series. This is the sci-fi world I want to see: not just “What happens if we only changed one thing, like not dying?” but the world of “What if we changed everything in society, on every level? What would humanity even look like?”

I will admit, though, that the first 8 minutes from the first episode did leave me a little too lacking in context. Much as I love how works like Neuromancer and The Diamond Age throw their readers right into the deep end, I did feel a little impatient with the fast editing of images between one version of Kovacs (pre-death) and the other (waking up in a new body), with no real sense of what I was seeing or why I should even care about what’s happening. As fun as that can be in a book, I think TV is something audiences a little more leeway before getting tossed into a random world.

I’m also not a huge fan of the way exposition is sometimes dropped clunkily into the middle of conversations. Even if Kovacs is still adapting to the new world, the way charaters like Ortega suddenly have to rattle off banal facts about AI hotels and other commonplace lore is a bit jarring.

This felt most egregious in the first episode, where Kovacs and Ortega have a drink and a chat inside a strip club. Their rattled-off exposition is taking place right next to a mostly nude dancing girl on the stage. It’s a little hard not to want to make a “sexposition” joke straight out of the first season of Games of Thrones. As much as Netflix gets to play with sex and violence in a way that network TV can’t, I do think that sometimes there’s a little too much emphasis on sex for titillation’s sake, especially if it’s trying to keep the audience engaged for learning key plot points.

Even with some of the bumpy nature of the show’s pacing, I do enjoy it overall. It’s colorful and gritty, it has plenty of film noir throwbacks, and there’s a real sense of the search for identity and meaning in a world that seemingly cares about neither.

Altered Carbon is currently available for viewing on Netflix.

Bibliography: Altered Carbon (series). Created by Laeta Kalogridis. Based on the novel by Richard K. Morgan. Produced by John G. Lenic. Perf. Joel Kinnaman, James Purefoy, Martha Higareda, Chris Connor, Dichen Lachman, Ato Essandoh, Kristin Lehman, Trieu Tran, and Renee Elise Goldberry. Virago Productions; Mythology Entertainment; Phoenix Pictures; Skydance Television. Netflix (distributor). Original broadcast: February 2, 2018 – present.


Don’t Stay in Your Lane: Writing Outside Your Genre

You’re a writer. Yes, you reading this blog. I’m talking to you. You might not know it, but you are, in fact, a writer. Everyone has an inner artist, an inner storyteller. The only trick is that the writer can organize their inner art, their close-held stories, into a printed format for other people to enjoy. And one of the ways that we writers organize our stories is by genre.

Genre tells us what kind of story you’re writing. If I go to the Science Fiction and Fantasy section of a bookstore or Amazon, chances are I’ll see a few covers with dudes swinging greatswords at a dragon, or a female astronaut floating in space. If I go to the Romance section, I’m expecting at least two people with a Connection by the end of the novel. We judge movies the same way, too. Go to your local theater, or hop on Netflix, and see what the posters and cover photos all look like. You can spot your Romantic Comedy, your Action-Adventure, your Political Thriller, and your Superhero Franchise Installment all in one go.

All well and good, but what happens when you’ve gotten comfortable with a genre as a writer?

How We Got Here

This is something I’ve been wrestling with for a few months lately. For years, I wanted nothing more than to be a science fiction and fantasy genre writer. I wanted to fill the world with a glorious cyberpunk revival. I wanted to write about androids in space, and elves hatching ancient plots against trolls and goblins, and so on. And to be fair, I did get that far. In 2012, I wrote a short story anthology by the title Digital Eyes, Family Ties, and last year, I won NaNoWriMo 2017 with a sci-fi thriller manuscript called Real Presence.

Now, the sci-fi style was nothing new for me. But the “thriller” was. I love movies like The Bourne Identity, but I’d never tried to write something like that before. And I have to say, it was an educational experience. How to cut chapters shorter, and how to keep the energy moving without (hopefully) diluting the audience’s interest in my heroines Melody Ambrose and Lauren Nowak, on the run from evil corporations and elite assassins in the Bay Area. I had to go and study what worked with stories similar to the one I was trying to tell.

If you want to expand your writing, it’s good to challenge yourself. Being able to show you’ve mastered one genre is good, but showing how much range you have as a writer is better.

Mix and Match Styles

Consider this, then, for a new genre exercise. Take whatever story you’re working on, and look at what your characters do and where the story takes place. Then consider changing up the action and setting for this story.

For example, one of the stories I’m working on right now is a modern-day drama about two women working on a film crew in Hollywood. One woman is an Indian-American girl who’s dealing with a bad breakup by getting back in touch with her family’s Hinduism. The other is a Midwest gal who wants to be a celebrated director, but she has to deal with a tough studio head and her visiting evangelical brother. It’s literary fiction in genre, but with two competing subgenres: a Künstlerroman (“artist’s novel”) about a Midwestern director, and a Hindu-inspired story of spiritual transformation. By seeing how the two stories intertwine, we can see how they make for a stronger overall plot.

So, how about this for your story? Suppose your vampire story was also a mob family crime drama? Imagine if your newly made bloodsucker now has to navigate the world of vampire families, all feuding with one another for territory? Think Dracula meets Goodfellas or The Godfather. Or suppose that you’ve got an amazing story about a young princess who overcomes the odds to rescue her kingdom from an evil wizard? We’ve seen plenty of those stories, but what could we add to this? Maybe the story isn’t a medieval fantasy, but an urban fantasy. The “princess” is the last heir of an ancient family, fighting an immortal wizard hiding in plain sight on Madison Avenue, and their “kingdom” are the scattered elves, dwarves, and fairies trying to eke out a living in the slums and alleys. Suddeny, we go from a generic medieval setting to a lively modern one.

Genre matters. It matters to the author who needs new ideas. It matters to the publisher who wants a good title to put out for sale. It matters to the avid reader looking for something to buy and devote their time on.

You lose nothing, dear reader, by trying something new in your work. Even if it doesn’t sell or pick up interest, you’ve tested yourself and learned something new.

Happy writing to you all!

Pyre: Even When You Lose This Game, You Win

Go Nightwings! Copyright © 2017 by Supergiant Games

Supergiant Games is quickly becoming my favorite video game dev team. While I didn’t get hooked on their first hit, Bastion, I fell immeasurably in love with their follow-up title Transistor. And now, I’m enamored with the imagination and energy of their latest game, Pyre.

In a distant fantasy land, Exiles from the prosperous Commonwealth compete with one another in the wastelands, known as the Downside, performing the “Rites” so that they might achieve Liberation and return to society, pardoned for all their crimes. One such Exile becomes the Reader for a group known as the Nightwings. Joining such characters as Hedwyn, Jodariel, and Rukey Greentail, the Reader performs the Rites against different teams, expanding their roster and developing their skills in pursuit of their freedom. And, as the Rites grow more difficult over time, in pursuit of justice as well.

Half the fun of this game is getting to know and experiment with different characters on your team. There’s not only standard trios like the optimistic Hedwyn, the brooding Jodariel, and the self-interested Rukey. There’s also Bertrude, the hissing snake-woman alchemist with some strange ideas of benevolence. There’s Ti’Zo, the absolutely adorable drive-imp who’s been around for a long time. There’s Sir Gilman, the wyrm-knight whose boasting and melodramatic speeches belie his deep-rooted fears. Everyone in the cast adds a fresh angle and splash of color to an already well-designed game.

(And did I mention how cute Ti’Zo is? Because he is. He is a little fluff-ball of delight and mayhem that makes me smile every time he’s onscreen.)

The setting for Pyre makes for an interesting type of gameplay, too. At the end of the day, the game is basically in the same vein as Rocket League or DOTA, but with far more drama and pomp than your typical basketball tournament. Every game is a Rite ordained by the holy Eight Scribes of eons past. Everyone wears “raiments” instead of team jerseys. The Downside is a multilayered, multicolored world where each match takes place near the remains of a long-dead Titan, and where Celestial Orbs are cast into flames in order to score points—er, I mean, gain enlightenment…

And on that note, can I say how refreshing it is to have a game that takes such a positive note on spirituality? As a religious person, it’s easy for me to only see faith in modern media depicted in evil fundamentalists and heroes who “stopped believing in God a long time ago.” Getting a mystical flavor in the Rites, and seeing faith in the Scribes depicted through characters like the Moon-Touched Girl, really adds to the setting for me.

Even if the gameplay boils down to “throw a ball into the enemy’s goal enough times to win” (which is pretty exciting all by itself), the devs did a good job of heightening the stakes as the game continues. Thanks to Greg Kasavin’s writing, we see a larger story unfold with the introduction of Sandalwood, the Nightwings’ mysterious backer, and the Liberation Rites at Mount Alodiel. Character goals and pasts come into focus with these Rites, and every new cycle of gameplay means the opposition gets harder as well, but in a more fulfilling way, I think.

Honestly, the best thing about Pyre is how story and gameplay are integrated. Players might have a story-based issue to explain why they’re stronger now, or why you can’t use them for a certain match (like how Jodariel and Pamitha can’t be on the same team). Even when you lose a match, the story goes on, and your teammates continue to grow in wisdom (which, in the game’s context, translates to actual skill and bonuses in future matches). Losing doesn’t trigger that automatic frustration or demand that you go back to your last save for another try. You could do that, but even a loss against the high-flying Essence team can still be a valuable lesson in the future. And the game is equally merciful when it comes to giving you practice rounds with Sandra the wraith and the Beholder Crystal.

If you want a game with beautiful scenery and an equally touching mythology, then go play Pyre. If you want a game with colorful characters and an amazing soundtrack, then go play Pyre. And if you just want to have fun playing match after match against the Beyonders or the Pyrehearts, then go where the stars align, dear Reader, and play Pyre. It may have taken a while to get here, but this is one title I’ll be coming back to for a long time.

Pyre is available for purchase through retailers like Steam and the PlayStation Store.

Bibliography: Pyre. Developed and published by Supergiant Games. Designed by Amir Rao and Greg Kasavin. Programmed by Gavin Simon and Andrew Wang. Art by Jen Zee. Written by Greg Kasavin. Music by Darren Korb. Microsoft Windows; Linux; Mac OS; PlayStation 4 (platform). Original release date: July 25, 2017.

Thoughts on MLK Jr. Day, 2018

So there I am, sitting in Jim’s Tire Center on LA Avenue. It’s Martin Luther King Day, and it’s a chance to reflect on the “I Have a Dream” speech and on the message behind Letter From a Birmingham Jail, to see the Gandhian ideals of nonviolence and social justice take shape in a way most Americans might recognize. I’m sitting there with a book of Joan Didion essays in my lap, waiting for the man behind the counter to call my name. He’ll tell me that my tires are all replaced, that my suspension’s been fixed, and that, yes, it’s all the same price he quoted to me last Thursday.

But, for the last two hours, I got to sit and try to read. I say “try,” because, against my will, I get to listen to two straight hours of Fox News talking heads.

I hear them discuss Democrats holding up negotiations for DACA and military spending. I hear them praise Trump’s work on the economy and North Korea, and how he’s bringing all those jobs back. I hear commercials for investing in gold and silver, for VA-backed home loans now that buying a home’s never been easier, for heart medication and children’s hospitals and home surveillance systems. I hear the snide tone in which Democratic proposals are dismissed, in which Obama’s lack of activity on jobs and security is held up against Trump’s sterling record. I hear pride in hard work and scorn for state governors who make billions in tax revenue off legalized marijuana (because how dare they make money off drugs?).

In all of this, I hear two things: money and security. And that’s really the same thing, isn’t it?

I hear, Hey, you worked hard for your money! Here’s how you make more!

I hear, Look at these soldiers in front of the flag! Don’t you want to do your part for them?

I hear, Democrats said Trump hasn’t fixed anything! Why didn’t they fix anything either?

When I used to be an MSNBC viewer, I saw similar lines in their programming. I’d hear Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann go after Republicans for their crude profit motives and bullying of women and minorities. I saw Democratic legislation for healthcare and immigration reform stifled by angry Republicans and Tea Party misfits, who were all really in the Koch Brothers’ pocket, you know.

And that’s the interesting thing, when you think about it. Money is a big deal to both parties, and most of it comes from a strong donor class. The same goes for these 24-hour cable news shows. When I see their commercials, I see who’s bankrolling the network. I see which demographics they’re trying to target, because Lord knows older Americans have health issues and retirement concerns, and if we can scare them in the primetime, we’ll get their money that they’re so afraid to lose on our new line of products and services!

Republicans are mean. Democrats are hypocrites. Republicans only care about rich white people. Democrats want to send all our money to lazy immigrants and coastal elites. Republicans want to keep the underclass permanent. Democrats want to destroy entrepreneurs in this country.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Meanwhile, as I drive home on a set of brand new tires, with fine-tuned suspension, I feel a sense of freedom. Not because I earned my car or those tires, but because I put money back into my local economy. I feel grateful for the hard work that the folks at Jim’s Tire Center do, and I pray for middle-class and working-class folks to get a break with their finances and employment, so that businesses won’t bury them in fees or keep them locked in a cycle of debt. I feel free, even while I see myself in the larger scheme of a community that works, eats, sleeps, prays, and dreams together.

By the way, if you have some time today, please sit down and read Letter from a Birmingham Jail in full. It’s relevant to anyone who cares about the long moral arc of our universe.

Flash Fiction: “Monsters on the Track, Liquor in the Back”

It’s been a while, but I’m always glad when I can come up with crazy new stories. Especially when said stories let me channel my inner Hunter S. Thompson.


Monsters on the Track, Liquor in the Back,

By Alexander Paul Willging

Word Count: 535

Few, dear reader, have the stomach for a flat-out, full-on, non-stop, balls-to-the-wall race in the middle of the desert. And yet, that’s where I found myself, leaning against a Harley-Davidson motorcycle at eight in the morning on top of a lonely Nevada dune.

Armand Boston, reporting live from a press tent somewhere in Clark County, desperately scarfing down vodka and burnt gingerbread cookies to stave off the morning heat. Yes, it’s true that the Las Vegas Gazette has revoked my press credentials at the time of this writing. But what of it? The Story Must Be Told. And it’s not like I could give back the rented motorcycle before Thursday…

The racers were ready at dawn. I toyed with a slice of lemon around the rim of an untouched glass of water. Revving engines and hoots and hollers filled the air outside. I only then remembered to hit the button on my tape recorder, for when I’d need color and sound to add to this article. Even if that greased-up, pigheaded Pancho of an editor refused to print it.

Instead, however, all I heard next were screams.

The Beast that attacked never stood still long enough for photographers to capture it. Not that they could, dear reader, whilst they were running for their lives. I saw the best bikers of my generation destroyed, raving, hysterical, and mutilated limb from limb. Neither photo nor prose could have prepared you for the viscera that the Creature waded through on that unholy morn…

[Editor’s Note: We apologize, but there is a missing section in Armand’s story. The article he sent for publication has at least a page and a half stained with lemon juice. Or, at least, we hope that it’s lemon juice.]

…And there I was, dear reader! Eye-to-eye with the Jabberwocky itself!

Though it did not burble as it came, it reared back its head and split the air with a bone-chilling roar. It raked the space above my head with bloodstained claws, and in my mortal terror, I did the only thing I could.

I threw cookies at the damn thing.

To my surprise, the one-eyed, one-horned giant purple people eater did not reject the torched gingerbread. In fact, the Creature seemed delighted. Its salivating maw inhaled the treats and followed up with a sickening wet crunch. O! Happy was this undevoured reporter!

One plate of cookies and a liter of vodka later, the Beast had had its fill. I stood outside the ruined tent, clinging to the remains of a Harley-Davidson chopper, and I watched the Beast gallop drunkenly back into the sandy wastes from whence it came. At long last, the desert was silent and still again, save only for the pitiful cries and crawls of the half-eaten racers at my feet.

Far be it from me to speculate, my readers, but I can only guess at how this act of mayhem might have been a monster’s commentary on the sport of long-distance motorcycle racing. Even so, while our Armed Forces continue their desperate pursuit across the empty Nevada wastelands, this humble reporter can only offer one small piece of advice.

Don’t skimp on the gingerbread cookies. Your lives may well depend on it.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.