A Closed and Common Orbit and the Clash of Identities

Copyright © 2017 by Becky Chambers

As I said in a previous review, I’m interested in how we’re changing the tone of science fiction with newer works. The spirit of camaraderie and cautious optimism in Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet really sold me on the merits of the story, as well as the fictional future that Chambers outlined. Even with energy consumption issues, ongoing wars, and multispecies politics, there’s still a chance for people to come together and find new familial bonds in the depths of space.

In the sequel (spoiler alert incoming), A Closed and Common Orbit, we follow a similar route, but with a tighter focus. The AI known as Lovelace, replacing the original personality of the ship computer on the Wayfarer, has since moved on for greener pastures with the crew’s mutual friends Pepper and Blue.

With a body kit that gives her an organic, almost genuine human appearance, Lovelace quickly adopts a new persona and life on Port Coriol as the modder girl Sidra. But Sidra’s exploration of organic culture comes with a price, as she struggles with built-in protocols and coding that could expose her not-so-legal existence. Compare all that with a series of flashbacks, detailing how a young Jane became the modder girl Pepper through escape, surviving the wilds, and fixing old tech with a friendly AI named Owl, and we begin to see how two women’s lives are shaped through a rough journey of self-discovery and persistent repairs to the tech they need to live.

It’d be easy to say that Pepper’s flashbacks form the more compelling side of this book. After all, she escapes a dystopian life as a slave with a number, and she faces off with wild dogs and a near-dead starship in a junkpile for years on end. But there’s a lot to be said for Sidra’s journey, too. Even as she uses her new body to befriend an Aeluon tattoo artist, and try new food and drinks, our AI protagonist is still fighting an inner and outer battle. She’s terrified of the chance that outsiders will recognize and report her as an illegal entity; she’s also battling all her code, which tells her that being inside a starship is natural and being in a body isn’t. It’s dysmorphia on a new and unexplored level.

I also appreciated how much this story fills in more of the background on the Galactic Commons and how spaceflight had advanced. We learn a little more about the rise of the Harmagian species, the entry of humans into the GC, the status and rights (or lack thereof) for AI, and what sets apart the culture and history of Aeluons. Every culture and race feels authentic, with a sense that they’ve lived as they have for centuries, even with tech innovations and meeting new species. Seeing a Laru’s reaction to things like humans crying (or “leaking”) or the way Aeluons perform their mating rituals in the open definitely adds to the flavor of the setting. And for Jane and Sidra, our main characters, it’s a chaotic and colorful world they’re entering for the first time in their respective eras.

I do respect that, on some level, new readers or people unfamiliar with some of science fiction’s ups and downs might have trouble with Sidra’s storyline. Even with all the cool things she gets to experience, hearing her talk about rewriting code and analyzing her digital pathways can seem a touch overwhelming. It certainly helped me while I was reading that I have some small knowledge of HTML, Python, and JavaScript. Rest assured, though, that you won’t be sitting there reading endless pages of technobabble from an engineer’s POV. This is a novel that gives you a little bump into the world of lab-engineered people trying to figure out their place in life.

While Closed and Common Orbit didn’t have the same wide array of plot points and conflicts as Small, Angry Planet did, I do think it’s a worthy follow-up to the first book. Even if it isn’t a perfect standalone piece, the story has a quiet but meaningful weight in how it approaches identity issues and personal growth. So long as you’re cool with petbots and aliens smoking redreed (and why wouldn’t you be?), you’ll find a good time in these pages.

A Closed and Common Orbit is available for purchase through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other booksellers.


Latinofuturism: A 2018 Late-Night Thought Experiment

If this writing seems strange or piecemeal to you, it’s only because my thoughts being written up at half-past midnight might have that effect. Nevertheless, after taking a look at what I’ve written below, as a new take on culture and artistic impact, I think it’s worth sharing even by the light of day.

So, how did we get here? By way of Afrofuturism, and how it inspired such amazing modern feats like the film Black Panther (directed by Ryan Coogler, and written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole), and the whole of Janelle Monáe’s career. As a concept, Afrofuturism is an aesthetic where African culture and technology intersect. Cultural critic Mark Dery first coined the term in his 1993 essay “Black to the Future,” although this ethos has been prevalent since at least the 1950s (possibly as far back as Ralph Ellison’s 1954 novel Invisible Man). It’s an aesthetic that both celebrates African achievements and identity, and clashes with mainstream views of science fiction and technology determined by the often white cultural elites.

Naturally, thinking about all this late at night got me into a few questions about my own ethnic heritage. I’m Irish-American and Mexican-American, but when I’m asked to pick one race on any census form or official document, I always pick “Hispanic or Latino.” I can’t deny that side of myself, and in recent years, I’ve learned to embrace it as part of my overall identity, along with being bisexual, politically progressive, and devoutly Catholic. Thinking about this, especially as a writer, means that I’ve been pondering how my Latino heritage and our social views on technology might intersect in the larger media? To coin a phrase, how to achieve an aesthetic like “Latinofuturism.”

So what, then, would Latinofuturism look like?

Copyright ©2009-2018 by milehighrandall on deviantArt.

Let’s say there’s Aztec ziggurats standing next to Spanish colonial cathedrals. There are Mayan stone calendars everywhere you look. All signs of old and new cultures are available to the public.

Art by Julian Mendoza.

Let’s say that someone’s bringing back the pachuco heyday of the Twenties, with flashy suits, big hair, and floral colors. We dress well, and we’re doing well, too.

Photo by Vladyslav Otsiatsia via Getty Images.

Let’s say that cybernetics and medical engineering is something that Latin Americans revolutionize (as is actually the case in countries like Cuba). Instead of the old tired cliché about low-paid workers stealing manufacturing jobs, imagine a world where trained youth are building their own futures.

From the mural “Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central.” Art by Diego Rivera, 1947.

Let’s say that Remedios Varo is handling the city’s architecture, Frida Kahlo is turning news stories into sensual portraits, Diego Rivera is covering every street corner in his murals, and Jean-Michael Basquiat is the inspiration for a new generation of graffiti artists.

Source: The Piña mural in the Government Palace in Chihuahua, Mexico, 1992.

Let’s say that Simón Bolivar’s face is being flown against the likes of Che Guevara and Benito Juarez. A new politics based on independence and human rights.

Native community in Tres Islas, Peru. Copyright © 2012 by Empresa Editora El Comercio.

Let’s say that indigenous people are being consulted on which lands to cultivate and which to let be. Imagine a world where jungles and deserts are allowed to bloom as they have for centuries before us, and where our need for natural resources isn’t at the expense of native cultures and tribal lands in places like Chiapas and Tres Islas.

Now, you might read all this and say, “So what? It’s some left-wing laundry list of things Latin America has in common.”

And I’d say, “Exactly.”

Afrofuturism is a movement and ideology built on the concept of black cultural heritage and achieving technological and social progress under that banner. In my mind, Latinofuturism is the same thing, but placed on a different set of continents. It’s what Latinx people can cherish and strive toward, no matter their countries or their economic status. We all share these elements, and we can make a start in our media, our industries, and our politics.

And as someone who wants stories with more Latina protagonists in them, I think it’s as good a place as any to begin.

So, readers. Thoughts? Comments? First impressions? I’d love to see a conversation starting about culture, identity, art, and literature here.

Flash Fiction: “Hoovertown Knights”

I can never stay around from my homage character to Hunter S. Thompson. Especially not when I get a wild story prompt like I did from my friends in Burbank.


Hoovertown Knights, by Alexander Willging

Word Count: 684

At some point, along the way, I stopped caring about how absurd all this was. It wasn’t every day that you force your brother-in-law to commit a daring heist on his own jewelry store in East Vancouver. Sure, call it insurance fraud. But what are such paltry crimes against the chance for immortality, babe?

Yes, dear readers, it’s your favorite madcap journalist Armand Boston, reporting live from the bushes outside a factory in North Canton, Ohio. I sit here, adorned in a Pith helmet and several thousand dollars’ worth of ruby necklaces. These accoutrements are my lone defense against what I can only assume is the dark magic protecting this lonely red brick palace.

“And yet,” my brother-in-law Phil muters at my side, “we could be doing this during the day. Could’ve taken the tour and everything—!”

“Hush,” I whisper back. “El Monstruo approaches!”

And sure enough, with terrible plodding steps, out comes the night watchman. I can barely see the brass buttons gleaming on his starched, pressed uniform. He sweeps his flashlight right over us, and my breath goes tight. Phil looks ready to grumble some more.

Perhaps he’s still mad about his smashed-up jewelry store?

In total silence, I reach into my pocket and pull out a tiara. A bit small, but Phil says nothing as I plant it atop his curly head. Still pissed, but hey, with this diadem, he’s now royally pissed.

Then, ignoring his grunt of protest, I ready the softball I had in my other pocket.

Right as that security guard turns around, I hurl that sucker hard as I can.

Plop! With a groan, the guard collapses. With a clatter, his ring of keys drop onto the pavement. And just like that, Phil and yours truly are making our way inside the main building for the Hoover Vacuum Company.

Most vacuum cleaner enthusiasts know about W.H. Hoover, the brand’s esteemed founder. But few know about the massive vault under his former office in North Canton, Ohio. Or the fact that, in 1945, a team of spies working for the Office of Strategic Services made a secret deposit into that same vault. Something big and heavy, shipping straight out of a Nazi base somewhere in Tunisia.

Of course you wouldn’t know this story, dear readers. The mainstream media wouldn’t suck so hard unless it were owned by the likes of Big Vacuum.

One elevator ride later, Phil and I are measuring our steps down a long, dark corridor. The jeweled medieval compass—the one that I stole from Phil’s shop when his boss wasn’t looking in all the chaos—points our way true. Within minutes, we are directed toward a turn in the corridor and arrive at a pair of giant, nondescript steel doors.

On the doors is a black circular port. Looks like something the size of a compass could fit there…

Well, you know how these things go, reader. Click, boom, doors swing open, lights switch on—

And there she is.

Atop a gleaming white pedestal, bathed in a heavenly afterglow.

A grail. The Grail. That gold cup that all the knights and archaeologists and conspiracy junkies have been hunting for centuries.

And of course they’d hide it out in freaking Ohio.

“Phil, mi compadre,” I whisper. “One sip of this, and we’re gonna live forever!”

“Um, about that.” Phil taps my shoulder. “I think we’ll need to. ‘Cause in case you hadn’t noticed…?”

He points to the glittering shelves. Good God, they’re all here. The Ark of the Covenant. The Hand of King Midas. The sword Excalibur. The Shadow Constitution that James Madison wrote up in 1812!

And, of course, guarding it all is a giant three-headed dog.

A big, black growling son of a gun.

“Right,” I say, not losing my cool. “Right, so… we go downstairs…”


“…And turn on every vacuum cleaner we can find.”

“You’re insane.”

“And you married my sister. So what does that make you?”

Phil sighs. For, like, a minute.

“Go on three?” he asks.

I slap him across the shoulders. “Now you’re starting to use your head, man!”

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

Why I Use a Four-Act Story Structure

The Ghost Train by Arnold Ridley. Patricia Mantuano, playing Julia Price.
Photo Credit: Patricia Mantuano.

Think of a story as a 4-act structure. This is true for a novel, a short story, a TV episode, or a feature-length film. There’s a clear beginning, middle, and end, with the middle broken up into 2 separate acts.

Within all 4 acts are the same 4 stages:

  • Alienation
  • Connection
  • Breakdown
  • Resolution

Today, we’ll look at each stage and how stories progress from one to the next. It’s all about tracking the change between characters, events, places, and themes. Whether you’re J.K. Rowling writing about a boy wizard at Hogwarts, or you’re Ta-Nehisi Coates writing about his youth dealing with street crime in Baltimore, you can still tell a powerful story once you see how the tale breaks down in a way all audiences can digest.

Part I: Alienation

Meet the heroes. The world as they know it is out of balance. This is where the families are feuding in Romeo and Juliet. This is where Princess Leia gets captured, her two droids go wandering in the desert, and Luke is wasting away on his uncle’s farm in Star Wars. Whatever the hero is looking for in life, they’re not getting it, and they’re trying to make do.

Part II: Connection

The hero faces an unexpected turn of events. Romeo meets Juliet while disguised at a party. Luke Skywalker meets Obi-Wan Kenobi. Suddenly, their old world is gone. They meet new allies. They start working on a plan of action. Their antagonist shows up, or at least new obstacles do. This is all the signature action that audiences tend to see in trailers and commercials.

Part III: Breakdown

By the Midpoint of the story, the hero’s old goal is replaced with a new one. Romeo and Juliet are married, but now Romeo’s been banished, so how can they stay together? Luke has rescued Leia from the Death Star, but Obi-Wan’s gone, and the Empire is in pursuit. Everything the hero trusted before now begins to fall apart. They begin facing setbacks. They sit back and try to work out just how they’ve screwed up. You’ll often recognize these moments in a story, where the hero is sitting alone, trying to wrestle with something after a major defeat.

Part IV: Resolution

We’ve hit the Darkest Hour. It’s do-or-die time for our hero. Juliet fakes her death to escape an arranged marriage, but her plan ends in tragedy for her and for Romeo. Luke flies with the other Rebel pilots, and with Han Solo’s last-minute rescue, he’s able to blow up the Death Star. The hero has to make a risk here. They have to make a sacrifice, to put themselves in danger, whether it’s a shootout at a warehouse or just a fateful conversation. Whatever happens after that will change both the hero’s life and the world around them. At that point, they’re no longer stuck with the same problems from the Alienation phase, and the story has reached its natural conclusion.

Of course, maybe you’ve read this and you think to yourself, “Yeah, well, I prefer the 3-act (or 5-act) structure.” If so, why? Or do you have your own way of outlining a story? Please share your thoughts in the comments section. I’d love to see how other writers think.

Isle of Dogs and Wes Anderson’s Wild Animations

Copyright © 2018 by Fox Searchlight Pictures

I love Wes Anderson movies. They’re the epitome of quirky American cinema, but there’s a lot of heart in those stories and some pretty clever cinematography at work, as is Anderson’s style. When you see a lot of yellow? That’s Wes. When you see a whole dialogue within an extremely symmetrical scene? That’s Wes. When you track an impressive line of characters moving horizontally across the screen? Yep, that, too, is Wes.

I adored The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. I fell for Moonrise Kingdom. And now I’m pleased to watch the director’s latest project, Isle of Dogs.

In the near-future, the Japanese city of Megasaki has seen an outbreak of dog flu, and Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) has decreed all dogs be banned and sent to Trash Island. He faces public opposition from Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito), who seeks a cure for the virus, as well as opposition at home from his nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin), who will do anything to find his beloved dog Spots (Liev Schrieber). Meanwhile, on the island itself, a pack of four dogs (voiced by Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Bob Balaban) come across Atari after he crashes his plane into the island, as well as a stray dog named Chief (Bryan Cranston). As the clock ticks down to the Mayor’s final plot to eliminate all dogs from the area, Chief leads his newfound pack to help the boy find Spots and get word back to the mainland about their plight.

As dramatic as the above synopsis sounds, the story’s pretty simple. A pack of dogs and one determined 12-year-old take on the Mayor’s oppressive regime. Even so, for something that seems goofy, the spirit is definitely heartwarming. Anyone who’s even been a dog owner will get half the jokes. There’s also a nice recurring motif and exploration of the line, “Whatever happened to man’s best friend?” Isle of Dogs spends as much time making fun of the way we treat dogs as it does exploring how dogs and people view each other. Loyalty’s a huge theme here, and it shows on both sides of the conflict.

The casting for this film is excellent. I mean, you’ll get exhausted just trying to keep track of who’s who in this movie. So I’ll just keep it simple and say that Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeff Goldblum are ideal for the dogs they voice. Greta Gerwig blends in well with her sharp, uber-serious diction as Tracy Walker, the lone English-speaking student in a Megasaki City high school. Also, the Japanese voice acting blends in well with the English voice cast. Much credit is due to Kunichi Nomura, who helped Anderson develop the story and how brings both pathos and power to the role of the cruel Mayor.

The stop-motion animation is breathtaking, with so much detail poured into the way dog fur moves and the subtle changes of human expression on characters like Atari and Tracy Walker. I’ll admit that, at this time, I haven’t seen Fantastic Mr. Fox yet, so I can’t say how it compares, but I imagine it’s on par.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I, in fact, am not of Japanese descent. Therefore, I can’t really claim to be a credible witness about cultural appropriation with this movie. This is, after all, a film written and directed by Wes Anderson. But even so, given his collaboration with Mr. Nomura and the amount of work that went into representing all the details of modern Japanese life in stop-motion, there is a certain syncretic spirit within the plot. English-speaking characters like Tracy aren’t made superior to native Japanese like Atari, and even her place in Japan as an exchange student gets commented on at various points. The dogs also speak in an English vernacular, but they highlight that life as a housepet in Japan wouldn’t be all that different from the life of a pet in America or Europe.

But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps I’m not giving cultural appropriation its due. I can only say this much: go see the movie. Whether you love Wes Anderson or you just love seeing dogs in action, consider going to see Isle of Dogs. For all its quirks and commentary, at the end of the day, it’s still a pretty heartwarming story for all ages. It’s an offbeat, funny, farcical romp with a dramatic core that never lets up.

Isle of Dogs is available through Fox Searchlight Pictures. It is currently playing in theaters.

Bibliography: Isle of Dogs. Directed by Wes Anderson. Produced by Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, and Jeremy Dawson. Screenplay by Wes Anderson. Story by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura. Perf. Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Kunichi Nomura, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Harvey Keitel, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Akira Ito, Akira Takayama, F. Murray Abraham, Yojiro Noda, Mari Natsuki, Yoko Ono, and Frank Wood. Indian Paintbrush; American Empirical Pictures. Fox Searchlight Pictures. US release date: March 23, 2018.