Make your monsters unique: Lizzie Borden vs. Lovecraftian horrors

I watched the season finale of American Gods, and they did something brave: they portrayed Jesus as just another member of the motley horde of gods. Usually the Christian faith is excluded from these kinds of god-stories — you can’t reduce the One True God to another myth, like Anansi or Czernobog! — but the show did just that. Furthermore, they featured dozens of Jesii, because there so many different versions of him, all different and often incompatible with one another. They chickened out a little bit, though; there was a throw-away line about Jesus being the nicest of the gods, and they failed to include one prominent American god, Supply-Side Jesus of the Prosperity Gospel, armed with an AK-47 while crushing the necks of the undeserving poor under his sandals.

But it’s still an interesting point. If you’re going to personify deities, which rendition are you going to use? There are at least hundreds of gods in the Bible alone, although the devout seem to think giving one name to all of those entities, malignant and benign, is enough to unify them. Likewise that got me thinking of other mythical beings. Is there one true vampire nature, for instance? The media versions are all over the map. There’s the Stoker version, which wed Victorian disgust for sex with disgust for contagion. There’s the Ann Rice version, all sex and Catholic guilt. There’s the del Toro/Hogan version, which got rid of the sex and wallowed in repulsive infection stories. Or the Stephen King version, which is a little less gorey but is still all about dread of infection and decay and death. I shall not dwell on the sparkley angsty emo vampires, but they’re also part of the range.

One of the problems with the proliferation of supernatural variants, though, is that interest attenuates. Which Jesus are we talking about? Which vampire? I’d also add, which zombie? Pretty soon these kinds of stock genre boogey men degenerate into an unimaginative gluing together of standard tropes and the mechanics begin to show. Oh, this is a standard Stoker vampire plus tolerance for sunlight plus a functioning penis. Oh, this is a God-is-Love Jesus plus non-white xenophobia minus pacifism. It’s paint-by-numbers supernaturalism. Genre fiction (note: I include Christianity in the genre fiction category) tends to get overwhelmed with this kind of rote assembly line crap. A few original and creative stories launch an idea into popularity, and then the hacks take over. The zombie genre is in the terminal stages of the process right now. Seriously, authors, don’t bother doing zombie anything anymore, unless it’s genuinely original, and no, “fast zombies whose weak spot is the heart rather than the brain” are not original.

I love the creepy-crawly kind of horror story, the ones that make you go “eww, ick” now and then and wonder which character is going to die horribly next. But I’m tired of vampires and zombies and Christian evangelists — those monsters have been sucked dry and reduced to gristle and slime and all the thrill is gone. I am overjoyed when I stumble across a story that is new and different.

Which brings me to the point of this overlong introduction. My airplane reading this past weekend! I found something cool and fun and creepy!

I’m a fan of Lovecraftian atmosphere — but not so much of most of the stories themselves. Usually there is just some detached narrator recounting the mounting horror growing in the breasts of the victims, who will meet their demise in some climax of hyperbolic madness. There are lots of Lovecraftian pastiches out there that are little more than collections of increasingly florid adjectives and adverbs. But have you noticed that most Lovecraftian heroes are dull men with little imagination who are usually shattered by some unearthly revelation? Fine, once or twice. Boring when every Lovecraft imitator does exactly the same thing.

But Cherie Priest doesn’t. Her novel, Maplecroft: The Borden Dispatches, first focuses on the characters, but it’s still Lovecraftian. It’s set in Massachusetts in the 1890s; Miskatonic University has a featured role; there are horrors that emerge from the sea. The story revolves around the Borden sisters — that’s right, Lizzie Borden, after her acquittal from a famous pair of axe murders, and yes, her axe, and her skill with it, is very important in the story. We learn the true secret reason why her parents were killed. There is a blend of science — Lizzie has a basement lab where she tries to understand what is happening, and one aspect of the nightmare overtaking them is an unusual specimen of Physalus — and mysticism. There is a supernatural aspect to the weird absorption of the townspeople in a voice from the sea, and the fate of the individuals who touch the thing from the ocean. There’s definitely horror here: the monsters are vivid and disgusting, and portrayed with the Lovecraft Adjective Generator turned down enough to endow them with a revolting degree of plausibility. Lizzie has her axe, and also a convenient installation in her basement called “the cooker” which allows her to render monstrosities down to digested slime. It’s all very well thought out and grisly.

Most importantly, though, you know enough about the characters that you actually care about them as they are driven towards terror and the inevitable descent into madness.

Recommended, if you’re a fan of horror and Lovecraft and good writing. I’ve also read her book Boneshaker, which has got zombies in it, which are usually a turn-off for me, but it hasn’t got very many zombies in it, and they’re kind of a generic mass threat on the side, so you can mostly ignore them and read it for the story and characters.

If only we could all find the doorway in our hearts

I’m about to depart for the airport to pick up my best beloved and bring her back home after a week long absence, which means I’m going to be tied up with driving for the next six hours (it’s OK, it’s worth it). I’m going to recommend some reading for you while I’m occupied.

I was blown away by Every Heart A Doorway, by Seanan McGuire. It’s a genuinely original fantasy story that steals from a lot of familiar fantasy tropes. You know there are all these stories about kids who are magically transported to a strange and unfamiliar world, like Narnia or Oz or Wonderland? What if this was a relatively common occurrence, with many strange worlds that are much weirder or scarier than the familiar fantasy lands? And most importantly, what happens to the children who have been shaped in their formative years by alien places with inhuman residents?

That’s the focus of the story: these children would be really different, with a different sense of self and different yearnings and different behaviors, and they’ve returned to our culture, which can’t even deal with something as mundane and normal as gay kids. What you find is that most of the parents of these children can’t cope and want to somehow reshape and indoctrinate the children to be more ‘conventional’, causing all sorts of misery for everyone involved. The lucky ones find themselves at a school in this story, run by a woman who had stumbled through a portal to a fantasy land and returned, who now runs her home as a refuge for these strange children.

So the main character, Nancy, is ace, and this is a minor metaphor for her true strangeness, which is that she lived in a world of ghosts who disliked the business of the living, so she has learned to retreat into statue-like stillness. The character I identified with most was Jack, who was trained on a world of mad scientists and horrible experimentation. Jack, by the way, is a girl — try not to impose your gender expectations on any of the people in the book, because you’ll probably get them wrong, or at best will be focusing on irrelevancies.

Also don’t think that a school that favors tolerance and openness will be free of tension and conflict. The whole story is about the way all these different people, different to a degree much greater than anything we experience in everyday life, have to struggle to resolve those differences, and how unhappiness can find a home anywhere you let it.

It’s fabulously well-written and thoughtful — it’s not really escapist fare. It’s also the first in a series which I’m looking forward to. Also, this is not your usual fantasy story that inevitably gets drawn out into an overlong trilogy of ten books or whatever. The main characters in this one achieve resolution of their various conflicts, for good or ill (no spoilers, but for some there are no happy endings, and for others, what they consider a happy ending might not make you happy at all), and I think the next book will focus on different kids or different sides of the story. I don’t know! Isn’t that wonderful when you find a book that doesn’t always trundle down familiar tracks?

The Nebulas have been announced, and I haven’t read a single one

I am a terrible person, but in my defense, this has been a rough and stressful academic year, and I haven’t been keeping up. That’ll change this summer, though, so give me a chance. I’m putting all of these on my Amazon wishlist.

  • Best Novel: All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders. I’ve heard many raves about this one.

  • Best Novella: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. Just bought it. Figured this ought to be high on my list, since McGuire will be at Convergence in July, and there’s a tiny chance I might have to stammer out a few words in a conversation with her. Also, I’ve read most everything she’s written, so why stop now?

  • Best Novelette: The Long Fall Up, by William Ledbetter. Who? I don’t know this person at all, so I guess I get to discover a new author. And hey, that issue of F&SF is free on Kindle Unlimited!

  • Best Short Story: “Seasons of Glass and Iron” in , The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, by Amal El-Mohtar. Oh, I did meet her, very briefly, at NerdCon. She was nice, and her stories are lovely. I’ll have to read this one, too.

  • The Bradbury award went to Arrival. I’ve seen that!

  • The Norton Award for Young Adult fiction went toArabella of Mars by David Levine, another one I don’t know…but YA stuff is remarkably fresh and good and often more challenging than the “adult” stuff. What’s categorized as adult is too often the conventional crap with military hardware and sexy times and surprisingly frequent violence.

So that’s my next week of light reading sorted.

One question: why novel, novella, and novelette? Isn’t it rather arbitrary to set up categories defined by the length of the work? We don’t have categories for Best Picture Over 3 Hours Long vs. Best Picture Less Than 2 Hours Long, or Best Actor Over or Under 6 Feet Tall. Is this a vestige of a genre that was accustomed to its authors getting paid by word count?

Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 and the taxonomy of aliens

I watched Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2 this weekend. It was a fun bit of fluff. I’m also a fan of movies that portray god-like aliens as inherently inimical to humans and evil by nature, and that therefore our purpose, if we have any at all, is to kill gods. And then there are lots of space battles with funky ’70s music and funny one-liners. Groot is adorable, but my favorite character had to be Drax.

But, I have to say, I was also distracted by the horrible science. I know, I know, this is a fantasy story based on a comic book, but I am compelled to judge.

First up, the video game-style space battles. They’re fun to watch, but come on — World War I dogfights and weapons with such high energies that you can use them to carve your way to the center of a planet? And when your ship gets hit by them it might chip the paint but otherwise just bounce off? Also, those streams of little ships in formation getting zapped by the good guys, I recognized those — I played Galaxian in my misspent youth.

Secondly, everything in this galaxy seems so cramped and close-up. “Radio” your coordinates to the galaxy at large, and in minutes hordes of space ships show up to hunt you down. Activate your doomsday device on your remote world and all of the evil death weapons start blossoming simultaneously on worlds separated by a hundred thousand light years. It’s a cartoon, but I miss the idea of the vastness of the universe.

My biggest gripe, though, is with the lazy biology. All these alien races from the far-flung corners of the galaxy, and mostly what they are is humans with different colors of body paint. This is less like a congerie of aliens and more like Burning Man costumery, only with less nudity.

But really, the movie was good mindless fun and I’ll see it again. I confess, though, in slow moments I was thinking about a SF taxonomy of alien universes. And I sort of assembled a preliminary draft in my head, which I’ve now set down in bits on the interweb. Basically I looked at these aliens and thought about how long ago these creatures would have hypothetically shared a common ancestor with Earth humans as a measure of how far out of the box the creators were thinking. The answer is usually not far at all — most aliens are Weird Americans In Space.

Here’s my classification scheme. Please do argue with it.

I. Every alien is human. They might have latex bumps on their forehead or fluorescent purple skin, but any Earth-type person is capable of breeding with them. Also, they tend to conveniently speak English.

These stories cannot comprehend the idea of a different species, and typically portray every distant alien world as having diverged from American culture roughly 100 years before.

II. Every alien is humanoid. No, you can’t mate with them, and probably don’t want to. They don’t speak English, at least, but they do have a vocal apparatus that produces sounds of the same type and range as ours, with concepts that are easily translatable.

These aliens are basically members of our genus, possibly family, and divergence occurred sometime in the Cenezoic, typically within a million years.

III. Every alien is a vertebrate. They have a head, paired eyes, jaws, a small number of limbs. They may be based on Earthly reptiles, for instance, but are often strangely distorted into a bipedal form; faces tend to be flattened and made expressive to human eyes.

Divergence is at the level of class/order, representing maybe 100 million years of evolution.

IVa. Every alien is a member of a terrestrial phylum. One type might be insectoid, another squid-like, another reptilian. Every form fits into a familiar type, although again usually the main characters will be humanoid.

Divergence at the level of the phylum implies maybe 500 million years of independent evolution.

For an interesting take on this category, Russell Powell points out that we seem to constrain ourselves to fixed sets of morphological modules that are only coupled by evolutionary contingencies, so we shouldn’t expect to see Type IVa aliens.

IVb. Every alien is a chimera with characteristics of multiple phyla. Put insectile compound eyes on the face of a humanoid; tentacles on your 4-legged vertebrate iguanoid.

The components might be separated by 500 million years of evolution, but the combination implies some kind of anastomosing lineage with fusion of wildly different species. This doesn’t happen.

V. Every alien clearly has a completely unique evolutionary history and is not in any way related to any Earthly form. There may be some convergence in general form — they may have legs, for instance, for locomotion — but they are completely different in detail — different pattern of joints, for instance, and they don’t necessarily terminate in a radial array of digits.

These represent billions of years of independent evolution from a different starting point.

Aliens like this don’t exist in movies, because they’d be visually disturbing. You know how some people freak out at the sight of spiders? It would be like that for the entire audience, who’d be struggling to interpret what the creature is doing and trying to fit it into a threat/non-threat category. You occasionally find them in science fiction novels, where the author doesn’t have to show you every distressing detail in every scene.

How about some examples?

The Star Trek universe is Type I across the board, unrelentingly vanilla. They even have a totally bullshit rationalization, that all those species are related. Also, the idea that two species could have radically different internal anatomy and physiology (green blood and two hearts in one, red blood and one heart in another) yet still look superficially similar and be able to interbreed is painfully stupid.

Speaking of painfully stupid, James Cameron’s Avatar managed to have a Type I main species (they were just big, blue, long-limbed people) with a visually well-developed background fauna with unique biological characteristics that would never in a billion years have produced the Na’vi.

The Star Wars is primarily Type I; almost all the main characters are indistinguishable from Homo sapiens, but there are a few exceptions. Chewbacca is Type II; a few of the background characters, like Admiral Ackbar or Jabba the Hut are type III.

Babylon 5 is an interesting case. Once again, it’s primarily Type I — this is simply a necessity to allow human audiences to identify with the cast. So you have Earth humans plus Centauri, Minbari, and Narn that are basically Type I humans with varying degrees of latex appliances. But then you also have the Shadows, who are Type IVa insect-like aliens, and the Vorlons are the very rare Type V, conveniently hidden away in strange-looking environment suits so you don’t have to see them…and the creators don’t have to portray a truly alien species.

The heptapod aliens in Arrival are space-faring octopuses, putting them squarely in the Type IVa category.

For the horror fans, the Alien xenomorph is Type III. It’s not that alien, sorry. It really relies on its similarity to familiar predatory morphologies to provide the scares. I just wish Cameron would stop fucking the story up with his totally bogus bad evolutionary biology.

The Predator from those movies is Type II. Those are some impressively elaborate mouthparts glued on, but it really is just a standard humanoid with some strange facial prosthetics.

As for the Guardians of the Galaxy series, it’s once again a biologically boring Type I universe where the primary species delineator is, distressingly, skin color. The colors tend to be Day-Glo hues of blues and greens and purples and oranges and gold, and fortunately no one seems to be judging people by the color of their skin, but it’s otherwise completely retro, with aliens that are only a shade different from what we got in Star Trek.

And that’s OK. These movies are for the entertainment of Earth humans, not thought-exercises in alien evolution for the delectation of freakish biologists. Don’t let my obsessions ruin what is definitely a fun movie for you.

One godless thumb up for god-murder, one primate thumb up for humor and action, one chitin-sheathed mucus-oozing appendage down for unimaginative biology, one electromagnetic flux capacitor down for bad physics, one protruding ciliated sensory apparatus emitting fluctuating phase fields radially for zgrarrl!(ptang). Obey the digits that correspond best to your cognitive and perceptual biases.