My publisher has released the first graphic for What We See in the Smoke! Here is a first glimpse of the incredible cover illustrated by Toronto artist Raz Latif
Creating this novel has been a fantastic journey for me, and I’m excited to have more news to announce very soon! Though it will be available online earlier, I couldn’t be happier to say I am heading back into print this June.
Given to me by my publisher Crowsnest Books, this post is a sort of interview, to help me begin to actually talk about this new book of mine. What We See in the Smoke is coming May 2019!
Q. Have you always wanted to be a writer?
A: Actually, yes. My earliest attempts at writing predate my literacy – dictating my fictions to family and babysitters and any adult with a pencil who would do their best to transcribe while I would jump up and down with that stutter “and then, and then, and then” that 4 year old’s like to use. My parents might still have those stories somewhere. There was a brief interlude where I considered dual careers as an astronaut and archeologist. But everything always comes back to writing.
Q. What inspired you to begin writing your novel? Did you draw from personal experiences?
A: This was my 6th attempt at a book since I was a kid. I had experienced a lot of failure and self-doubt, and I think those feelings helped to fuel some of these stories. It’s hard to say precisely where this story was conceived. I think working on The Spectatorial – UofT’s speculative fiction journal, along with the creative workshop run by Robert McGill (Once We Had a Country), helped. There are bits of my experiences in here, but far more I made up. I love science fiction, and I like the act of telling stories. I don’t think all stories need to be true.
Q. Which aspects of the writing process present a challenge, and how do you overcome them?
A: Sometimes, I’d write myself into a corner in an early draft, and have to dig myself out. Sharon English (author of Zero Gravity) helped supervise a considerable chunk of this story, and often the problem was that what I’d written didn’t carry the meaning I wanted. In some places, she helped me rewrite and focus and tighten my characters and narratives, but in some areas, I’d throw the whole story out and start over. Chapter 2 of this story was originally titled Planet 57, but I rewrote it and changed it so much, it became my own inside joke to rename it Planet 58, letting the scrapped 57 become just another of the narrator’s imagined alternate realities.
Q. Do you have any quirky writing habits, such as a favourite snack or music playlist?
A: Oh man, there are so many. I like to create a playlist while outlining a story – often made up of rock or jazz – and I’d let it play while I was going about my day, on the bike, or running, or just walking around. Then when I’d actually start writing, I’d have to switch to movie soundtracks! If I write to music with lyrics, I end up just writing down the lyrics. I also find that I have to get up and walk around each time I finish writing a scene of a story, sometimes sitting down pretty far from where I’d started. I’d also doodle terrible artwork for the covers of each story while coming up with them. I still have some of those drawings somewhere.
Q. What have you learned through your writing?
A: I didn’t always know what I was trying to say in my writing, so I think I learn a lot about myself as I go. Sometimes I finish a story, and then read it over and go “oh, so that’s what I care about!” writing is a wonderful place to dump all your fears and hopes and anxieties and turn them into something beautiful.
On a more technical level: I realized that you should learn how to write dialogue by listening to real people. I’m half-deaf, so that’s tricky for me, but it’s true. If you try to learn to write dialogue by reading it in older books, you’ll just come out sounding like a worse version of those older writers.
Q: What is it about the short story format that you enjoy? Do you prefer writing short stories over long form?
A: Originally, I wasn’t interested in short works at all. But hanging around literary journals helped me to fall in love with them. In a short story, every word has to count, there can be no fluff. I love that. Speculative fiction was really birthed in short works in early 20th century magazines, and that’s a legacy I care about. Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles was a significant influence on me. I also care a lot about Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s works, and I often found that the best parts of his novels were when he was just throwing out short story pitches! But then again, my “short” stories can be very long, so maybe I like to hang out somewhere in the middle.
Q: Many of the stories in What We See in the Smoke revolve around the city of Toronto and it’s current (and future) inhabitants. What is it about Toronto that makes for a great setting for the book? A: I live here.
Toronto is a city that changes a lot – not always for the better. I think it can be a city that has trouble holding onto history sometimes, we tear too many things down. But, I think that if you set a story in a location that is real, it’s disingenuous to place it somewhere you don’t know. If I’d set What We See in the Smoke in Chicago or Paris or New York, it would have sucked. I don’t know those places well enough. I know Toronto. But the people in this story are like people anywhere. They are in my head.
Q: Of the stories in What We See in the Smoke, do you have any favourites? Why?
A: My favourite story is the one I haven’t written yet. Once a writer’s favourite story is behind them, the show might as well be over. That being said, different chapters in this book serve different purposes, and I love them for various reasons. A Carnival World has one of my favourite character scenes between a parent and child, and The War with Space is maybe my favourite speculative concept in the book. But really I love them all, and I don’t think I could choose just one without adding endless stipulations.
Terese Mason Pierre will be presenting a paper on What We See in the Smoke at The Academic Conference on Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy!
the conference will be hosted at the fantastic Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy inside the Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library on Friday and Saturday, June 7-8, 2019, just after the book’s official release.
official registration for the event, as well as more info on the presenters, can be found here:
Science Fiction (SF) is a genre often used to explore how scientists and science are a source of evil, potentially leading to the demise of civilization. Works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) have well established the trope of the mad scientist who focuses on unnatural or evil experiments. Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s novel Cat’s Cradle (1963) revises the relationship between evil and science. While Vonnegut’s scientists are culpable in the process of birthing scientific advancements that are used for evil, science and scientists are not themselves a source of evil. Writing in the context of the Cold War, when fear of nuclear apocalypse was a constant in the zeitgeist of the world, Vonnegut replaces the notion of the “mad scientist” with the military industrial complex, creating a narrative in which the source of science gone awry is not the scientists themselves, but rather the fault of the monolithic systems of commerce, government, and military that corrupt science for evil ends. In Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, there is no evil “mad scientist,” only corrupt and untrustworthy organized systems.
Cat’s Cradle examines the relationship between scientists and systems, beginning with the fictional religion “Bokonism.” Vonnegut uses the tenets of Bokonism to separate the structured systems of society into two types of categories. Depicting a religion in which “humanity is organized into teams” (Vonnegut 2), Cat’s Cradle begins to emphasize systems that come into being organically, created by the cosmic circumstances of fate. These systems, called a “karass” (2), are groups of people who—intentionally or not—affect each other’s actions and lives. Members of a karass are not formally organized, nor are they even always aware of the karass they are in, ignoring “national, institutional, occupational, familial, and class boundaries” (3). These natural systems can be perverted by artificial ideas of a “false karass” (91) known as a “granfalloon” (92). The relationships that are formally created and organized by people are granfalloons, not karass. It is through the concept of granfalloons that Vonnegut proposes the types of systems that can corrupt science for evil.
And speaking of my book… it is coming soon! Cover, description, and launch dates will all be coming your way this month! I couldn’t be more excited to share What We See in the Smoke with the world, so keep your eye out! in the next few months leading up to the book launch I will start posting Q&A’s, details, and a sort of “behind the scenes” of what on earth a “fix up novel” actually is.
[this is the final of the 10 short reviews I set out to write since September. given how much else is going on, I doubt I’ll be able to continue them into the new year. but that doesn’t mean this site will go defunct! I’ve got a lot to say in the next few months in regards to my upcoming fix-up novel What We See in the Smoke (coming soon from Crowsnest books) and I’ll be sure to say it on here. thank you for reading these short pieces with me, and if you enjoyed them, feel free to let me know!]
Five chatty strangers share a coach ride across the indistinct landscape of the American Old West, lit by a fading sun,engaging in an argument about whether human beings are like ferrets, God’s Children, or ultimately unknowable creatures. That’s how “These Mortal Remains” begins, the final chapter of Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) – a Western anthology film initially conceived as a Netflix series but released as a single event. While I Usually enjoy Coen Brothers movies (with O’Brother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis being my favourites), I felt the stories presented within the film were treading familiar ground. They all carried the simple message that the west was a hard and violent place, and almost all ended with the protagonist’s death via bullet to the head, hanging, or drowning (with the notable exception Chapter 3, in which Tom Wait’s hapless prospector makes it out alive, albeit still with gunshot wounds). Worse than that, none of those five stories felt very original. They all seemed like pastiches of every other western movie I’d ever seen, full of the familiar, tired tropes.
And then the final episode began. Once again,all the characters were caricatures – so much so that they are even credited as their archetypes. The isolated Trapper,the prudish Lady, the rude Frenchman on one side of the coach, and the two bounty hunters: the Irishman and Englishman (who from the mustache to the walking stick is Edgar Allan Poe, played by Jonjo O’Neill) on the other. But it’s fun – a series of silly monologues on the nature of humanity and some folksy singing from the Irishman And Englishman. But then as the Lady has a panic attack from anger, and the Frenchman shouts at the coachman to stop, things change. Suddenly it’s noticeable just how grey and dim the light has become, the black robes and huge brimmed hat of the faceless coachman become something altogether more sinister as the English man declares dryly and tiredly “He never stops.” In the dark, the certainty of the matter is unclear. Are the English and Irishman”reapers, harvesters of souls” as they claim? Or two more bounty hunters as the Trapper assumes. Are they all on a coach into town? Or three dead souls on their way to the afterlife? Still, everything seems like something I’ve seen before – only now I’m beginning to understand why, and it brought me back to Linda Hutcheon’s Theory of Adaptation. The Coen Brothers aren’t creating a “known adaptation” (Hutcheon 121) of a previous film, but they are still creating a story “born of other stories” (2).
The Englishman tells people stories, and the Irishman kills them while they’re distracted. He begins “the story of the midnight caller,” and it’s clear that his fellow passengers have heard it before, just as we have seen the stories that appear in Buster Scruggs before. The Coen brothers, through their Englishman/Mr.Poe avatar, smile at the camera. “You know the story, but people can’t get enough of them, they connect the stories to themselves.” For the Coen Brothers,the doomed archetypes of old Western heroes are “us but not us”, they are the version of ourselves – struggling, uncertain – that we can watch die over and over, and enjoy it with popcorn. “The midnight caller gets him, never me” Poe says, as the Irishman (the underserved but excellent Brendan Gleeson) flashesthe viewer a knowing glance. It’s a gleeful and unnerving scene, and it serves as the thesis of the film. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs knows where it belongs in the genre of Westerns.
We watch our protagonists struggle and die,even as we feel we’ve seen these stories before. The Coen Brothers make us watch, through all six stories, as these familiar archetypes try to make sense of what it means to die. The Coen brothers want viewers to feel that there is some greater meaning in the genre of the Western that their characters find in their brutal deaths, but they don’t want us to know what that is. It’s a movie about the Western genre, more than a movie about what it’s like to watch a Western,more than it is a movie to be placed alongside the classics it invokes. So the film is only ever as good as its viewer thinks of Westerns, and this is at once it’s greatest strength and greatest flaw. If there’s a lesson to be learned from the Coen’s latest effort, I think it might be that homages: even the most lovingly and expertly crafted ones, have limits.
Hutcheon, Linda, and Siobhan Flynn. A Theory of Adaptation.2nd ed., Routledge, 2013.Coen, Ethan and Joel. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Annapurna Pictures.
Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road is an intensely bleak vision of the apocalypse. The narrative follows two characters only ever referred to as”Man” and “boy” as they limp across a grey and hellish landscape full of cannibals, rotting houses, and precious canned food in aquest to reach the ocean. McCarthy raises very uncomfortable questions about what happens to human identity in a state of endless crisis. The Darkness of the novel is of such an extreme; I occasionally found myself wondering if the kindest option for both characters would be suicide.
However, what strikes me about the novel from a
technical standpoint, aside from its beautiful use of imagery and simple but
effective language, is the way McCarthy frames dialogue, both to build
character and scene.
When nobody is speaking, The Road is a silent film on the page.
It’s hard to imagine any sound – even things as simple and primal as that of a
footstep or wind through trees – cutting through the oppressive quiet of
McCarthy’s world. McCarthy’s America is a kind of Afterlife, a purgatory with
flashes of hell that crop up violently and fade away after bloody
confrontation. However, always there is a deep sense of death over the
landscape, and it is easy to imagine that soon after the book’s narrative comes
to a close, there won’t be any life left on earth at all.
So every occurrence of dialogue is a kind
of shock; sudden and startling. Even McCarthy’s “script-like”
arrangement of dialogue on the page, never with quotation marks, indented via
dashes, often existing without tags or connection to the form of the narrative
helps to elevate this sense of shock. Exchanges of dialogue in The Road are like islands on the page
floating between the shores of texts above and below.
This was an approach to presenting
dialogue that I first encountered not in McCarthy but Michael Ondaatje’s 1987
novel In the Skin of A Lion. However,
I’m choosing to highlight this method with McCarthy because I think his use of
this style elevates the kind of story The
McCarthy’s stylistic choices also allow
the complexity of straightforward dialogue to shine through. I especially
admire the fashion in which McCarthy can highlight the exhaustion of The Man
through select but effective use of echoing:
Maybe there’s a father and his little boy,
and they’re sitting on the beach
The above exchange between the two central
characters on what happens after death might have taken pages in the hands of a
less skilled writer, but McCarthy boils it down to its barest form. He doesn’t
overdo the echo effect to the point of a gimmick, but when it does appear, the
closeness of the echoed line to the original highlights a sense of emotional
exhaustion and tragedy within the speaker.
Like my previous review of Tom King’s
Vision, repetition allows the dialogue to take on new meanings, though unlike
King’s use of repetition to begin/bookend scenes, McCarthy’s echoed dialogue is
more effective because of how close together the recurrences appear. Each of
the Boy’s lines, full of optimism and endearing innocence, takes on shades of a
mature kind of sorrow and defeat in The Man’s mouth. McCarthy shows how
dialogue and form can work together to elevate a scene.
[writers note: The posting system for WordPress seems to have been redesigned this week. if anyone sees anything off about my posts, please let me know!]
(Special note: The Vision, like many characters of Marvel Comics, was created by Stan Lee, alongside Roy Thomas, and John Buscema. Stan Lee passed away this afternoon, which I learned literally while typing up this piece, and it is hard to think of a single other creator responsible for a legacy that has inspired and affected so many for so long. He will be deeply missed.)
Vision was a 12 issue limited series published by Marvel comics between January 2016 and December 2016 written by novelist Tom King, and illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez, with covers by Mike Del Mundo, and colours by Jordie Bellaire. Departing from traditional comic book narratives, Vision was notable for being an entirely self-contained narrative, existing separate from the usual superheroes antics. King’s scripts take an unusually literary approach to the genre, morbid humour, reference, and strange imagery. The story follows the android The Vision, purged of all emotions and attachments to his life as a superhero, create a new synthetic family – a wife, son daughter, and dog – and move into the Washington D.C. suburbs.
Full of uncanny images, King and Hernandez take full advantage of the uneasy nature of their story, finding as much disturbing content in moments of extreme violence as they do in images of having their red-skinned glowing-eyed, expressionless, floating protagonist standing in a collared shirt in tie, throwing a football, or lying in bed. Vision is a character study, with a creeping sense of dread – almost from the first page, an unseen narrator tells the reader that it must end in disaster.
Something I find particularly interesting about King’s scripts for Vision is his use of cyclical and recursive dialogue, seemingly taking nods from the stilted and bulky form of early and mid 20th century comics. In fact, King occasionally lifts original 1970s dialogue from old issues of The Avengers, creating a schism between the script and its imagery, which is always grounded and understated.
Panels, phrases, and quotations often bookmark the first and final pages if an issue/chapter. King uses repetition to inform character, with quotes often taking on either tragic or sinister new meanings with each reoccurrence. My favourite use of King’s dialogue occurs halfway through the series, in the issue titled I too shall be saved by love. The issue begins in flashback, showing the Vision with his first wife, fellow comic superhero Wanda: The Scarlet Witch. They sit up far apart on opposite ends of the bed – the narrative implying this is the very beginning of their relationship, their discarded clothing strewn across the floor. They are both visibly uncomfortable until Vision tells a joke, and they both laugh and move closer together. Everything is bathed in a deep and lively red.
The issue condenses decades of publishing to track Vision and Scarlet Witch’s Marriage, from their happy early days, through to their eventual separation and divorce. The issue concludes with the revelation that Vision essentially used “copy+paste” by using his first wife’s brain as the template for creating when creating his synthetic android wife, Virginia.
King’s script ends in a twisted mirror of where it began: with Vision and Virginia sitting in opposite ends of the bed, Vision telling the same joke so many years later[iii]. The page seems drained of colour, two sets of clothing are folded neatly at the foot of the bed. They remain far apart, and expressionless. A narrator plugs along with ironical hopefulness, claiming “In the end, we begin again. Everything is new and different” (King 2016). With each repetition, things do become new and different, building both tension and character
King’s vision is an exciting take on rebooting a character without erasing some of the more awkward parts of their history, as well as an excellent way of writing a story about robots that rely on the uncanny without going to the more clichéd well of us vs them. There are things I think comic books are capable of doing that other types of storytelling – whether on the page, or stage or screen, cannot. But I do think it is worth considering King’s script’s use of repetition as a way of revealing character.
King, Tom et al. The Vision. 1st ed., Marvel Comics, 2016.
It occurs to me that I’ve actually been writing about good comic books since my very first online article: Check out my first ever review: of Matt Fraction and David Aja’s phenomenal Hawkeye
I find that when most people think of Rick Deckard and the neo-noir world he inhabited, they think first of Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner (and it’s many different editions). But while the film and it’s very late/very recent sequel are remarkable science fiction films, there are essential disconnects between them and the narrative of Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel that served as their inspiration.
What serve only as passing moments in the films – namely the Voight-Kampff Empathy Test, the importance of the animal, and the religion of Mercerism – are the essential components of how the book signifier/signified relationship between the Human and the Other. While the films might be preoccupied with notions of examining the distance (or lack thereof) between the human and the android characters, there are still clear separations between the two. While in the film’s “replicants” are often stronger and faster than human, but with severely shortened lifespans, the “Andy” (Dick 35) are not physically distinguishable.
Unlike many of the other humanoid android’s of popular culture – human flesh hiding the skeleton of the robot ala James Cameron’s Terminator – Dick’s creations of the “organic android” (16) might be synthetic, but the novel argues that they cannot be considered artificial. All that separates the androids, and the humans of the novel is their ability to pass the Voight-Kampff Empathy scale. Dick’s novel sideswipes the question that books and films continue to debate today when it comes to stories of the “other” even today. Dick’s novel is unconcerned with whether or not androids can think. Their self-awareness and mental abilities are a given. What the Voight-Kampff Empathy scale that can identify the android is concerned with, is what the novel itself is concerned with: the power of empathy. In Do Androids Dream, a humanoid android is not identified with physical attributes, but with emotional intelligence and empathy.
My focus on Dick isn’t only on the science-fiction or the noir detective influences of the book, but this focus on how to signify the Human and it’s other., the Rick Deckard of the novel knows the empathic responses that signify the human “biologically […] exist (46) in the androids that he hunts. Dick also goes to lengths to show that even humans, affected by the radioactive dust of their dystopian environment (or other emotional traumas/disabilities) experience “a flattening of affect” (37) that would make them fail the Voight-Kampff test. Humans affected by the dust, the “specials” (16) may not be exterminated like the Andy’s, but they “ceased, in effect, to be a part of mankind” (16).
“Do you think androids have souls?” (135) Might be the question of Dick’s bounty hunter, but I don’t think it is the question of the novel, and moreover, I think it one that a contemporary reader can take for granted. By the time we reach the 2017 sequel to the original movie: Blade Runner2049, It is simultaneously easier to accept an android protagonist with their own feelings, independence, and motivations, and easier to see the distinction between human and Other. When I return to Dick’s novel, I can’t help but be troubled that the signifier/signified relationship between human and android in the novel was actually harder to define than the adaptations, and reimagining’s the book inspired (similarly to the monster of Shelly’s Frankenstein, who became less recognizable and intelligent with each retelling).
I think the lesson of Dick’s novel is not how to create a compelling dystopia or threatening androids, but how to question what it means to be “Othered”.