JM Williams

A home for all things fantasy and sci-fi.

Heroism is a Distinctly Human Trait

Mar
17

I have been considering what happened this past week in New Zealand, as I expect most people have. I don’t plan to drag this out, as just thinking about it makes me depressed. But there is one detail that I think warrants mention, especially here, on the blog of an author who writes hero stories.

Heroism is a distinctly human trait. Other animals don’t risk their lives for strangers. This was a topic that Radio Lab took up more than a year ago. It’s worth listening to that episode, if you haven’t already.

Sure, animals will confront a predator when it threatens their young. Members of a herd will join together in fighting off a pack of wolves or lions. But in both of these cases, the act directly benefits the defender, either in directly protecting their own DNA, or protecting their primary defense mechanism.

Humans are the only animals that will rush into danger in order to save a complete stranger. Some humans, maybe by some cross-wired instinct, will run at an attacker, rather than away. In Christchurch this past week, several people, including Naeem Rashid and Abdul Aziz, charged the gunman, likely reducing the number of victims the man could slaughter.

What makes people do this? I don’t have the answer, and I’m not going to spend a thousand words here speculating. I imagine it has something to do with our ability to create imagined ideas, like honor and sacrifice. My guru Noah Yuval Harari has written a lot on how our ability to create imaginary ideas and realities is likely what led humans to dominate the world.

Anyway, it’s something that came to mind. A silver-lining in this dark cloud of hate which covers our world. People can be good, too. If not, we wouldn’t have a fantasy fiction industry based around heroes.

But heroes aren’t a fantasy.

~JM

I Don’t Understand Why Everyone Loves Aquaman

Mar
09

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Aquaman is…okay, I guess. Wonder Woman was far superior, and not without its own issues (a bland, over-powered villain, and that special effects orgasm of a climax, for a start). Aquaman is also emblematic of many things wrong with blockbuster film making today, or just modern storytelling in general.

As a science fiction and fantasy writer myself, I have been taught, damn near commanded, to avoid info-dumping. Show don’t tellavoid long exposition, keep dialogue natural, only say what needs to be said…these are some of the rules speculative fiction writers are taught from the beginning of their careers. Filmmakers don’t seem to take the same courses. The first 30 minutes or so of Aquaman is almost one long info-dump, only interrupted by a few brief scenes of action. You would think that would be enough, but the dumping continues on and off throughout the entire film!

Worse, it is done in the laziest of ways, almost always one character telling another some long, and half-unnecessary, bit of history of context. Natural dialogue this is not.

The pacing of the film is also horrible. When did the target audience for blockbuster action films become only those with severe ADD? I know Aquaman is not the first to suffer from this problem, not by far, but it is very representative of the issue. It is stuffed with way too much story, to the point where every individual plot point is rushed through so fast it is difficult to understand what is even going on. Worse than rushing the audience, the film also rushes its characters. Arthur (aka Aquaman) is not given any time to emotionally process what is happening to him. He just stumbles on from action set-piece to action set-piece without any clear emotional reaction or motivation. He is a loyal dog, trudging along where ever the plot tells him to go.

There are scenes, such as when he finally recovers the sacred trident, which should be charged with emotion, should be points where the character, and the audience, have a moment to stop and react to what is happening. But we do not get a chance to be emotional. Instead, we are dragged along to the next battle before any tears have the chance to form.

The fundamental problem is that the film tries to do too much with too little space (I know that’s saying a lot for a 2 1/2 hour film). Inside Aquaman are packed two or three different films all fighting for space and attention. There is a typical fantasy coming of age story. There is a revenge story and imperial conspiracy. There is a Indiana Jones-esque global treasure hunt. Each of these deserves its own film, deserves the full attention of the audience.

For me, the treasure hunt sub-plot is the most interesting and where the film shines. If the director and editor had any sense, they would have focused on this story and trimmed down the rest significantly. Who sent the memo to all these comic book film makers, instructing them they are required to show the hero growing up as a child for an origin story? That was never a requirement. In fact, some of the best narratives jump right into main, adult plot. The first 20-30 minutes of Aquaman, showing his father and mother and boyhood, could have been cut completely. In fact, it would have been much better to first ever see Arthur’s mother when he encounters her later in the story. That would have enhanced the emotiveness of the moment.

While the pacing and over-stuffed nature of the film is its biggest weakness, there are other problems. Like the complete lack of logic with regard to Atlantis. If you want to make a space opera, make it in space, where it makes sense. You know what doesn’t make sense? Lasers underwater. Explosions underwater. Lava splashing underwater. Electric machines underwater. Characters who can fly around underwater like Superman through the sky…and they ride mounts? And space ships? Why? Superman doesn’t ride in helicopters and planes; he doesn’t need to. Yeah, an army of warriors riding great white sharks is a cool image, but it is completely illogical for the world. And if they have ships with lasers and torpedos, who the hell would want to be stuck riding a shark anyway? And if the water people have eyes which have evolved for them to see in the dark under the sea, why do the ships have headlights?

Everything about Atlantis is nonsense. Pretty, yes. Cool, yes. But nonsense nonetheless. There is a lot of room for the unbelievable in fantasy and superhero stories. But not to the point where you are contradicting yourself. Or to the point of violating very basic common sense.

Aquaman is a good looking film, but the quality is only skin deep. There is no emotional depth to the story or the character; the time needed to create such depth is never offered. The writing is also terribly dry. The jokes almost all fall flat. That’s not a problem with the delivery; I’ve seen Jason Momoa on SNL and he can be funny, given the right script.

The writing in Aquaman is also so terribly cliche. Lines like “What could be greater than a king? A hero.  A king fights for his nation.  A hero fights for everyone.” Groan. Go tell that to Aragorn. Every time an actual character (not the narrator) in a fantasy story unsarcastically calls someone a hero, Tolkien turns over in his grave. What ever happened to subtlety? Are audiences today so stupid they need everything explain to them in such blatant terms?

Aquaman is far better than most of the new DC Universe films, but that’s not saying much. I would even mark it better than many of the worse Marvel films (cough, Avengers 2, cough). But I don’t understand the unfettered praise that regular viewers seem to give it (critics have not been so kind, with the film’s current metacritic rating at only 55).

Maybe the next one will be better. The film makers won’t be compelled to over-stuff a sequel and can instead focus on a single, well-defined plot. Aquaman deserves a film that takes the time to examine the character and allows us to sympathize with him.

Or maybe I just don’t get it.

Thanks for reading!

~JM

Library Event Photos!

Mar
04

After some delay, here are the photos from the book reading and Q&A event I did two seeks ago at the Camp Humphreys Library.

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These two pictures give you a basic idea of the layout of the room and the size of the crowd.

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This one shows the way I set up the OMAM author interviews. I had three of my authors dial-in from across the globe. Pictured here is Richie Billing from the UK, author of the upcoming series Pariah’s Lament.

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I was also visited by another special guest, comic artist Joe Tolliver. Here he shows off some character designs for an upcoming comic we are working on together.

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After all the main events concluded, we had time for book signings and photos. Pictured in the top image is the organizer of the local writing group, which meets several times a month at this very library. I plan to try to see them once per month, if I can manage it.

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Lastly, the library coordinator had something special planned that I hadn’t been expecting. She had me sign the three copies of In the Valley of Magic which I donated to the library.

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And then she had me place them on the library shelf myself! What a great PR moment, eh?

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A small group of dedicated fans stuck it out through the whole thing (a three-hour event!). I am very thankful for the positive response.

All in all, it was a great experience. But also a learning experience. I have some keen ideas on how to do things better next time (hint: shorter event, try to do less but with more gusto!).

Hopefully these pictures give you some idea of how the event unfolded, not having video of the whole thing.

Let me know if you have any questions or comment. I’d love to hear some feedback on how to maybe improve things for next time.

~JM

 

The Hidden Subversion of Surf Ninjas

Mar
04

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In many ways, this was a film ahead of its time. Released several months before The Joy Luck Club, this film features a predominantly minority cast (mostly Asians) and, perhaps unintentionally, satirizes the still-existing Asian stereotypes of Hollywood and the so-called “white savior” trope.

The recent success of Crazy Rich Asians has generated a dialogue about East Asian casts in Hollywood, though that film is still the exception rather than the rule. Even now, East Asians are type-cast in a limited number of roles. We only get a Asian man in the leading role if he is a martial artist, or perhaps a Chinese gunslinger with ties the Triad. Anything deeper than this and Hollywood inevitably whitewashes the cast (Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange, Aloha, Annihilation, Edge of Tomorrow, The Last Airbender–you can find a list HERE). Only one Asian (well, half-Asian and passing as white) has ever won a best actor Oscar (and only 2 for best supporting actor) .

At the end of 1993, The Joy Luck Club suggested that things might change for the better. The critically acclaimed drama had an all-Asian cast, but its success didn’t sway the Academy. It took 25 years before another such film arrived, in the form of Crazy Rich Asians. To be honest, I haven’t seen that one, as it is just not my type of film. But I am happy for its success.

But even before the success of The Joy Luck Club, the summer of 1993 offered another film with a predominantly Asian cast, Surf Ninjas. Now, I am not suggesting that this film is in any way a masterpiece of writing and filmmaking. It has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 11%, which I think is mostly deserved. There is little from the film that endures. It is a typical summer action comedy, filled with bloodless fist fights and corny one-liners. But seen in the context of modern race politics, the film offers something more.

First, you have a film with a strong Asian cast and an Asian male lead. While this character does fall into the kung-fu man trope that endured through the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, he was written with an interesting twist that undermines this very trope. Johnny is not someone who grew up in Asian culture and is removed from white American society. The very opposite is true–he’s a surfer! And an adoptee of a grumpy, middle class white man. Indeed, Johnny’s (an Adam’s) lack of what we would identify as Asian-ness is a fundamental part of the story.

Moreover, the film is filled with anti-colonialist themes. The villain is a white military officer who has taken over a peaceful Asian island kingdom. The young leads are encouraged to embrace their ethnic heritage and to return home to restore the land of their birth. This is the opposite of long championed imperialistic messages of modernity and conformity which have dominated Hollywood’s view of Asia.

In presenting the narrative this way, the film also works to undermine the dominant “white savior” trope (Tarzan, Dances with Wolves, Avatar) where a white male comes into a foreign land and, while learning about the foreign culture and partially assimilating, ultimately fixes all of the problems there by applying his western cultural ideals. Surf Ninjas satirizes this trope directly by portraying their white savior–played by Rob Schneider before he became annoying–as a false prophet. A running gag in the film is that this character, named Iggy, believes he is actually the important one, the real lost prince. Of course we all know this is stupid, which makes you wonder why we so easily accept the white savior trope in other films.

The closest rival of Surf Ninjas is obviously the 1992 film 3 Ninjas, which also follows a group of three martial arts fighting teens. The most significant difference between the two is that the latter’s cast is almost completely white, whereas the former has several Asian leads and minority supporting characters. One has to wonder if that is the reason why 3 Ninjas became a franchise, while Surf Ninjas fell into obscurity.

This it all not to say that Surf Ninjas is not without serious problems. This film suffers from its own yellow-face whitewashing, in the form of the second “Asian prince” Adam, who is played by a white boy but given a bowl cut and dressed up to appear Asian. This is almost worse than just changing a character completely to a white character (Annihilation, Edge of Tomorrow), rather than casting an inherently Asian character white (Dragonball, The Last Airbender).

Surf Ninjas is by no means due for a critical revival. I just find it interesting that there are hidden themes in the film that I never noticed before. (I have to admit I probably watched this film over 25 times as a kid.)

If you find all this interesting, and want to give the film a go, you can watch the full movie on YouTube (which probably attests to its quality).

 

Thanks for reading!

~JM

REBLOG: Richie Billing News

Mar
01

If you watched the author interview VIDEO I shared a few days ago, you will know how bad the audio is. I spend several hours messing with the audio, editing and clearing up the sound. The trouble is that I recorded the video on my cell phone, in a large and echo-y room. There’s only so much that can be done to fix it. The good thing is, one of the authors actually transcribed his interview. You can check that out HERE.

via RichieBilling.com

My Review of The Golden Key

Mar
01

The Golden KeyThe Golden Key by Cathleen Townsend

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you look at my other reviews, you’ll see that I do not give out a five-star often. I’ve rated several immensely popular books at three stars, and award winning books at four. I do that hoping for a moment like this, for the chance to mark one book above the rest. This is one of those books.

From the first page, Cathleen Townsend had me hooked. And it didn’t require blockbuster action, or some quirky magical/SF gimmick. It was a character, a single character who drew me in fully. Dieter is a husband and a father, struggling to care for his family in a time of war. That is it, and that is all that is necessary.

Set at the end of WWI, this very well-researched novelette follows Dieter as he heads out to find his son who went to war but didn’t return. During his journey, this worn-down father comes to learn first hand the realities of war and the nationalism and prejudice that keep the violence going. Along the way, a little bit of magic helps him on his quest–the supernatural here is subtle and does not distract our focus from the character, where the real magic is happening.

As mentioned, this book is a novelette, which means it is short. A dedicated reader can get through it in one sitting. That being said, there is very little missing from this story. It is exceptionally efficient and focused on its specific little plot. Most novels, particularly speculative fiction, are stuffed with filler in order to meet a perceived genre-required word count. It is a breath of fresh air to read a book designed with only the needs of its story in mind.

The prose is lovely and tight. The examination of war and its effects is deep and resonant. If I had to complain about anything, and this is really being nit-picky, it would be that the ending arrives a bit too abruptly, to the point where you don’t really know it’s the ending until the story is almost over. I think I am just used to long-winded books that drag their resolutions out. I really am grasping at straws for criticism here.

I could continue heaping praise on this work, but that would keep you from actually reading it. You should read this. Put it in your reading queue right now. You won’t regret it.

View all my reviews

OMAM Author Interviews

Feb
25

After spending two days editing and fixing audio, I have been struggling to find a way to post the full video of the author interviews I did last weekend at the library. My first attempt was with YouTube, but they won’t let you post any videos longer than 15 minutes with a free account. Also, WordPress won’t accept the long file. Finally, I put it on Facebook. At least they aren’t stupid enough to reject free content.

You can watch the video via Facebook by clicking on the thumbnail below. The audio is a bit soft and echo-y, but that’s the best I could do with my editing tricks. Hope you like it!

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Thanks for stopping by!

~JM

Aurora – Flash Fiction

Feb
24

Author’s Note: This is a story that I wrote a couple years ago, based on a popular 80s song  and just haven’t found a home for. It did get some good personalized comments from a few publishers, but alas, no sale. At this point, I don’t think I have the time to invest in continuing to revise and submit. 

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AURORA

by JM Williams

The silence of the northern Alaskan forest is broken by the rolling thunder of gun shots. The cold air burns my lungs as I run, as fast as I have ever done before.

I’ve run too far, put too many trees between myself and the poachers for their weapons to reach me. But I don’t know if I can maintain this lead. My legs are already struggling through the snow.

Damn poachers.

I trudge on from tree to tree, trying my best not to get tripped up by some unknown hazard hiding under the snow. A simple stone or jutting root could be the end of me. My legs sink into white pack up to my shins, leaving an obvious trail that would be hard for anyone to miss, let alone trained hunters. The night is full, but instead of darkness, the bright glow of the aurora borealis covers the trail like street lamps. It provides all the light they need to track me. They are going to catch me.

I never expected to be championed for my work. Conservation is its own reward, and a necessary sacrifice. I followed these men, tourists by the look of them, on their expensive expedition. They came to hunt our endangered bears for sport, waiting in ambush just as the creatures woke from hibernation.  I watched them prepare for their bloody act. The clank of their rifle bolts as the bullets were fed was the louder than any creature in the forest. They were crouched in the snow—three of them—waiting at the mouth of a cave for their targets to appear, oblivious to anything else around them.

I sounded the alarm, until my throat ached from the exertion, to warn all the creatures around of the imminent danger. The men were thrown into fits by the surprise. I had expected anger, even threats, but not for those men to turn their weapons on me.

A spark in the dim green haze. Another shot echoes off the trees. This time it hits its mark. My vision flashes red and white. Hot, searing pain. I feel it push through my body. Snow on my face, bitter cold. My ears ringing. I put a hand to my belly. Wetness leaking out. A chunk of flesh missing.

Is this the end?

I hear shouting. My inner voice shouts, too. Get up!

I struggle to my feet and try to run, but all I can manage is an awkward hobble. Behind me, a trail of red cuts across the pristine white of the forest floor. I feel dizzy.

Up ahead I see a light, floating in a dense formation of trees. Maybe another hunter? Or better, a conservationist like myself? They will protect me. Won’t they? I drag myself towards the glow.

Passing around a thick patch of trees, I see a figure in a small clearing. But it is not the form I expected. No hiking pack, nor heavy coat. The figure appears distinctly feminine, her ethereal dress billowing in the cold night wind.

I fall to my knees. I’ve lost too much blood. My legs can’t support my weight. I hear the jeers of the poachers getting closer.

I look up at the illusory figure. My eyes struggle to focus. Is she real, or just a mirage, brought on by my fatigue? She has auburn hair and a soft smile. Shifting shades of green and amber twirl in her eyes. Eyes that are almost hypnotizing.

I hear the crunch of my pursuers steps clearly now. They are only feet away. I imagine they are readying their weapons, preparing to end me, but I cannot turn my eyes away from the strange woman.

Light lances out from her hand. I hear screams of terror and pain, the shuffling of feet and the stumbling of bodies behind me. I fall onto my back, no longer able to keep myself upright. I see the poachers fleeing in scattered horror.

She leans over me and I see her face, or what should be a face but isn’t. There’s only a shifting landscape of colors where her face should be.

“Aurora…” I say.

“You are safe now, Shepherd,” she says, her voice divine.

I feel the pain of my wound fading. My body warming.

“What did you do to them?” I ask.

“I gave them back all the pain they have inflicted on my children.”

“Shepherd?” I ask.

“You have protected my children for a long time, have burdened yourself with their safety. What are you, if not a shepherd?”

“How do you…?”

“I have been watching you.” Her colors smile. It is the most pleasant thing I have ever seen. “Your efforts are not in vain, Shepherd.”

I reach out a hand to touch her face, as the world fades from view.

I wake the next morning outside my cabin. Except for vivid memories, I have no evidence of my extraordinary experience. Just memories. Can they be real?

Rolling over in bed, a sharp pain crawls across my stomach. I reach a hand down and feel the unmistakable shape of a bullet scar.

THE END

So can you guess what song this story is based on? Thanks for reading!

On a side note, I am still waiting to get the pictures from my recent library event. I will share those as soon as I have them.

~JM

A Young Writer is Born!

Feb
17

My author event at the SFC Ray E. Duke Memorial Library on Camp Humphreys yesterday went very well. I had a small but attentive audience of around 20 or 25 people, of all ages, who seemed very excited by the StoryVerse concept I am working on with Fiction Vortex.

But the thing that really made my day came after events had officially ended.

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As I was finishing an autograph for a friend, a woman and her daughter approached me. I did not recognize them from the event, though I don’t think I memorized everyone who was there. Mom introduced the girl, whose name I believe is Amanda, by stating she has a dream of being a writer and wanted to know how to get published. Oh, the ego on this one! Ha!

Amanda was quiet at first, her mom doing most of the talking, until I asked her directly about her writing. Then she suddenly burst with as much excitement as a little cloud of ionized gas. Actually reminds of myself quite a bit. The turtle came out to tell me all about her school projects and how she’d love to be a writer “on the side” when she grows up. A lot of sense in this one.

I ended up giving her one of my Fantasia Divinity anthologies, which is where I got my start, and encouraged her to start with short stories, even though she is thinking of something bigger. It has always been my view that mastering the short form first will enable you to writer better long fiction in the end.

I also invited her to reach out to me for feedback if she ever completes a draft story. I wouldn’t be surprised if she does. Given her obvious tenacity, I wouldn’t be surprised if she finds this post.

If you are reading this, Amanda, I hope you hold fast to your writing dreams. It’s a hard thing to do, writing, and takes a lot of time and effort. But the end result of having someone else read your stories and, for a fantasy author at least, fall into the worlds you’ve created–that’s one of the best things in life.

I am currently working on editing video of the event, which is taking much longer than I had expected. This is due, in large part, to the echo of the large room I was in. I’ve been fiddling with audio editors to try to get some clarity. I don’t think I can get it perfect, but hopefully good enough.

More event related news is coming soon, so stay tuned!

~JM

AFN Interview

Feb
15

I’ve received the audio of my interview with AFN radio. I’ve done a little bit of editing, such as increasing the volume of the DJ. The file I was given was only the audio from my mic, so there’s a quality difference between myself and the DJ, but it’s good enough.

It was a fantastic experience. Many thanks to DJ Smitty and AFN Korea!

Without further ado: