Mad Max and the Monomyth

Last month I saw Mad Max: Fury Road (and posted a review here).

It got me to thinking about narrative structure. Even as I was watching it I could see the moments of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, The Hero’s Journey, in the plot.

Miller has spoken before about how Mad Max’s success was international because it had the ability to tap into a wide variety of existing cultural mythologies. Through this he discovered Joseph Campbell’s theories of the monomyth and these were significant in his development from that point on as a story-teller, and significant in the development of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.

In Australia, Max was the bushranger, the anti-authoritarian, standing up for the under-dogs.

In the US Max was the familiar cowboy frontiersman, Master-Blaster and his enemies were the ‘Injins’ in the same savage way of so many 1950s Hollywood Westerns.

In Japan, Max was a Ronin, a fallen samurai without a home, fighting for the honourable cause in a dishonourable world.

In this way Max was different things to different people, but at his core he was a familiar figure. A wayward loner. Lost. Wandering. Like Odysseus cast adrift on cruel seas, the victim of capricious fates.

So I applied the structure of the monomyth to Mad Max: Fury Road. It is a good fit.

Spoilers in the image below

(Click the image to enlarge)

Max's journey (Fury Road)

This shows us how a writer can do new things with familiar structures. Miller has used universal themes, characters and plot structure, but created something which is being hailed as a new and groundbreaking moment in action film-making, and a refreshingly fresh take on many of the tropes and expectations in the familiar post-apocalypse milieu.

Indeed, as Leah Schnelbach wrote for Tor.com, Mad Max: Fury Road subverts many of these heroic tropes and conventions.

So let’s unpack Miller’s use of convention and subversion a little (be warned, if you proceed, I do so at some length, and with every spoiler I can summon to mind):

The Opening

Max is alone, a wanderer in the desert. The film opens with his voice-over narrative. He tells us of his world: “Fire and Blood”. He is connected to his past (by the Interceptor and his Jacket, and by his memories, his PTSD, his ‘madness’). Quickly he is caught, captured, robbed of his identity and reduced to a ‘blood bag’. Immortan Joe (and his war-boys) treat Max as an object, as a resource. This is to become a major theme.
As with the previous films Mad Max films, Max is anonymous to those he helps, and to those he opposes.

(source: http://www.etonline.com/movies/148795_tom_hardy_in_gritty_new_mad_max_fury_road_poster/)

(source: etonline.com/movies/148795_tom_hardy_in_gritty_new_mad_max_fury_road_poster/)

The call to adventure

In Campbell’s monomyth structure the hero is called to adventure. Often the hero resists this call, intitally, only to be convinced, or later decide, to accept the call. Here, Max is not so much called to adventure, as dragged to it. Having been taken by Immortan Joe he has been reduced to a body, even further in fact, to a mere bodily fluid. Like The Wives we are yet to meet, and like the Milk Mothers we glimpse, Max has been made an object. He is valued not for his self, but for the bodily fluid he provides. The Wives are reduced to wombs. The Milk Mothers are reduced to their breast-milk. Max is reduced to a ‘blood bag’. This is a central theme of the film, and Kameron Hurley writes well about how Joe controls the means of production in a post-apocolypse where resources are scarce.
It is not then Max who is called, but Nux and the other war boys. Nux is desperate to go on the hunt for the rogue Furiosa, desperate to prove himself, to launch himself into the promised afterlife of one who has died spectacularly in Joe’s service. He is as much reduced as the wives, the mothers, and Max. He is not a person, but an object, a weapon of war.
They are called to adventure by Furiosa’s decision. It is her agency which creates the chase which will dominate the first half of the narrative.
Max is chained, shackled, linked by blood (“Fire and Blood”) to the war-boy. In this way, strapped to the front of Nux’s car, Max’s role in the adventure begins against his will.

(source: YouTube)

(source: YouTube)

Supernatural Aid

As the pursuit of Furiosa and the war-rig progresses it seems that the arrayed forces of Immortan Joe’s armada will inevitably triumph. There are too many, and even on the war-rig itself Furiosa has no allies but The Wives. The dust storm toward which she steers her rig is the supernatural aid, something massive and beyond the control of any character. It forms a physical barrier to Joe’s continued pursuit, and actively destroys the last of the pursuing war-boys… the last but for Nux.
Within the moment of this supernatural aid Max wins his (still limited) freedom, overcoming one war-boy and stopping Nux’;s suicidal attempt at vainglorious sacrifice.

When the dust settles Max is no longer linked by blood to Nux, though he is still linked by the chain. His use of the unloaded shotgun is a wonderful call-back to Mad Max 2. As coincidence or good fortune would have it, the supernatural aid leaves Max (and Nux) closest to the stalled war-rig and the opportunity it represents.

Much has been made of the scene where Max comes upon The Wives in the desert, dressed in diaphanous rags, playing under the water, but here Miller subverts the soft-porn set-up of the scene (or “the start of a Playboy shoot” as Anthony Lane suggests in the New Yorker). We see no frolicking. Unlike Lane, or David Edelstein in Vulture, I don’t think that we (or Max) are invited to view The Wives sexually. Miller is aware of that genre expectation, but The Wives are not a harem to be ogled, they are survivors of rape and slavery. Max’s interest is less prurient and more instinctual. Max has, as he said in his opening voice-over, been reduced to a single instinct: to survive. The water, and the war-rig are the means of this survival. His attitude to the women (Furiosa) especially, is one of guarded respect for the threat that they represent to his survival. He is not interested either in freeing them (they have, after all, freed themselves, both from their prisons and in discarding their chastity belts, from sexual servitude) nor saving them. When he leaves in the war-rig he is (rather unheroically) consigning them to a return to Immortan Joe. But the war-rig, by extension Furiosa, won’t allow it, and reluctantly they are all – even Nux – joined in flight.

The Threshold

Nux is still a war-boy, and still an antagonist (though a minor one). He is ejected from the war-rig before it can pass through the threshold of the known world and into the unknown. In pushing him from the rig The Wives make it clear that he symbolises a sort of toxic masculinity which they see as the cause for the preceding apocalypse. The unthinking violence, the following of orders, the delusion desire for self-destruction, the loyalty to Joe… all of these parts of Nux make him unwelcome on the war-rig, and so when he passes through the Threshold between worlds it must be as a war-boy, as part of Joe’s crew.
The mistrust between Max and Furiosa continues, and Max refuses to give her his name. She names him Fool in response, but he is no longer ‘Blood-bag’, he is more than that already, more than a mere body, or a mere bodily-fluid.

Despite this mistrust Furiosa teaches Max the kill-switch combo, and so makes him a partner in her adventure. She drives them through the Threshold between worlds, but immediately beyond that threshold it is he who remains in the war-rig while she is not, and it is he who drives them from the threshold into the unknown while the Threshold Guardians (the bikers) turn against them and Joe finds his own way through the threshold to attack.

Mad-Max-Arches

The Unknown World

Here Max plays a role in the escape from Joe, but it is a significant subversion that he drives while Furiosa is the shooter, and that The Splendid Angharad shields both Max and Furiosa from Joe’s attacks. It is her pregnancy – the womb which is for Joe her only value – which protects them. Max is a means of their escape, but it is the women themselves who win that escape.

Nux becomes helper:
Having passed through the threshold as a member of Joe’s war band, Nux begins his transformation. He is anointed with chrome lips by Joe and sent onto the war-rig, only to immediately and embarrassingly fail. Joe’s dismissal of him is classic Australian understatement, and a crushing event for Nux which breaks down his war-boy self and leaves him vacant, for The Wives (and particularly Capable) to rebuild. As he sheds the war-paint and identity of one of Joe’s soldiers, it is through their forgiveness and acceptance that he is transformed. This is also a subversion, on the transformative nature of forgiveness, both for those who forgive and for the forgiven. This ties in thematically with Max’s inability to forgive himself, and the madness and visions that plague him as a result. This is not the action-hero paradigm of a retaliation for wrongs done. This is not bloody revenge at all costs.
As a result of his transformation Nux becomes the third driver of the war-rig, and at the scene with the tree (tree-thing) he becomes not just a helper in the physical sense, but through his ideas and his use of the chain which had once bound he and his blood-bag Max together as a crucial link in winching the war-rig to safety.

Challenges and Temptations:

The Wives’ commitment to their own freedom is challenged by the loss of The Splendid Angharad and the life growing within her. It is her own words which are then repeated, almost a mantra of motive, that they will no longer be objects. Cheedoh the Fragile in particular is tempted to return and hope for Joe’s forgiveness.

The bog becomes a physical challenge. Furiosa physically pushes at the war-rig, willing it on to higher and drier ground. The Wives and Max work with her to free the wheels from the mud, and to lay booby-traps for the armada following them.

When Max leaves the group, perhaps tempted to abandon them as he had intended to when he was first freed of his chains, Furiosa worries that he will not return. When he does it is a significant moment of bonding the group together. He is equipped now, and shares the weapons he has won. He is covered in blood, but it is not his. He bathes his face in Mother’s Milk. In his opening narration Max told us that his world was fire and blood – here the milk washes that blood away. Max’s world has been fundamentally changed.

It is in this section that we are shown a (rare) quiet moment, with Max and Furiosa together and alone – as alone as they can be on/in the crowded rig. Max – who had told us he had been reduced to a single instinct: survival – listens to Furiosa’s goal. For her, survival is not enough. She was surviving, has survived, under Immortan Joe. Her decision to depart from that life is her quest for something greater than survival. Redemption. It’s a quest Max will come to share.

The Abyss

The discovery of the Vuvalini is a false triumph. They are few, and they are – with one exception – old. They are no longer the many mothers Furiosa had hoped to find. The ‘green place’ she remembered, had promised, had become the very poisoned swamp they had passed. Her hope for her future dies, and she collapses, alone again, in the sand.
Here, things are at the lowest point. Redemption seems impossible. Max allows Furiosa to have her moment of grief, without overwhelming it with his own.

Max accepts Furiosa’s choice to leave, and elects not to follow. They are – momentarily – broken, but looking out across the salt plains Max realises that Furiosa’s goal has become his own, and he can help her achieve it. Neither can succeed alone, but together there is a chance.

He offers her the choice to return, but at no point does he order, or expect, or even persuade her. Furiosa reverts to survival and decides to cross the salt plains (the dead place of the monomyth) with no real plan any more but to keep going. The hand-shake on the salt plains is the beginning of the redemptive transformation and a return to the known world, changed and gifted.

Max and Furiosa are full-partners now, allies. Tansy Rayner Roberts writes well about Max not as feminist, but as ally, and nowhere is this better represented than while they are in the abyss.He lays out a plan, but it’s clear that she could as easily choose to keep riding across the salt and Max would go his own way, as they had been about to do.

It’s also in the abyss that they receive the gift of the goddess: the seeds. Liz Bourke posted a conversation which touched on the significance of the seeds. They are, thematically and in terms of narrative structure, the point of the return to the Citadel. Where The Splendid Angharad represented most directly – through her pregnancy – life being taken away from The Citadel, the seeds are the return of life. The unborn life was lost. The seeds are an unborn life recovered, saved, tended, nurtured, carried by the Vuvalini for precisely this opportunity, in the hope that fertile ground can be found. The Citadel is fertile ground, but corrupted by the influence of Joe. Freed of his influence, it will represent redemption.

Transformation and Atonement

It would seem that the return to the Citadel is an exact mirror of the flight from the Citadel, in that both have the war-rig at their centre and in both cases Immortan Joe and his allies are the pursuers. This is not exactly correct. Where the flight from The Citadel was a car chase, the return is a car race.
In the first instance the war-rig was the goal. If it could be stopped, or broken, the chase was finished. In the return however, The Citadel is the goal. Joe and the war-rig are not pursuer and pursued, but rival combatants. This is the first transformation.

There are also several transformations of character, but perhaps none more so than in the case of Nux. The one-time war-boy has lost  his war-paint and has come to look more and more human, less the alabaster embodiment of death. Where he was sneaking around on the war-rig as a saboteur, he is now a mechanic, keeping the rig moving where he had once sought to bring it to its halt.
His atonement for his previous acts comes as the war-rig approaches the world navel, the threshold that will return them to the known world. The canyon has been cleared and repaired since their last passing and it is clear that success relies on the war-rig passing through first, and Joe’s armada being stopped on the other side, in the unknown.
It is Nux who makes this possible. He ironically achieves the fiery self-sacrifice he had been craving as a war-boy, but it is transformed from the destructive act he intended in the dust storm of the movies opening. Now his act is his own, a decision he is making, not for personal glory, but for the good of others fro whom he cares. He has changed to much to return to the world where he had been a war-boy, but he atones in a matter befitting a war-boy changed.

Cheedoh the Fragile atones for her earlier temptation by taking on the role, again, of the wife wishing to return, but this time she transforms that role into a betrayal of Joe. This allows Furiosa to climb aboard and confront Immortan Joe face to face. She takes a moment to ensure that he sees her, that he remembers her, as surely she remembers the many years in which she was his property – years which her mother could not survive – before killing him. Joe’s death was necessary for The Wives, The Citadel, and Furiosa herself to be truly free of his influence, and with that death achieved he returns to the known world dead, defeated, overthrown.  Furiosa has atoned for the long years in which she was a cog in Immortan Joe’s wheels of power.

Max’s atonement is in accepting his role as ‘bloodbag’. Like Nux he embraces a role which had been imposed on him by Immortan Joe, but he twists and subverts the role to a transformed purpose. Nux subverts Joe’s preaching of a glorious death, shiny and chrome, and makes the act life-affirming. Likewise, Max takes Joe’s attempts to reduce him to a mere fluid, and transforms the act into one which is life-saving. He stabs Furiosa, but without violence, as an aid to her. He gives her his blood, and – perhaps as significantly – he gives her his name. He atones for what he once was, for the concept of masculine hero as a destroyer, and becomes heroic as a  life-giver.

The Return

It is Max who reveals the body of Immortan Joe, but Furiosa who steps forward to make that revelation real,and Furiosa who is raised up, with The Wives and the survivors and the all-important seeds.
Life has been returned to The Citadel, and life uncorrupted by Joe.
The Milk Mothers are free of their shackles and step forward to release the waters for the people. They are no longer the means of production themselves, but they have assumed control of the fluid that will bring life to the parched earth and its parched people.

Max, having achieved his redemption, and aided Furiosa in hers, returns to the state in which we found him in the film’s opening: a lone wanderer in the wasteland, belonging nowhere.
Max Crowd


Mad Max: Fury Road.

Quick, spoiler-free, spiel:

You need to see this film, and you need to see it on a big screen. It is a work of art. It is a spectacle of action. You will have heard, I assume, that this film is visually stunning. It is. The aesthetic of the world is as relentless as the action within. You need only watch the trailers, or see the posters, as the one above, to know what this film offers visually.
The plot is simple, but in the sense of being clear and direct within a limited framework. This is a good thing. The stakes are clear from early on, and the majority of the film concerns itself with the relentless action of the chase at its heart. Our (anti-)heroes have a clear goal, our villains are direct in their efforts to disrupt this.
It is balls-to-the-wall insane, and gloriously so.
If you have not yet seen the film, do not read on, there are spoilers everywhere below the jump. Go see it, then come back. Have fun. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Spoilers below:

The first sense you get of this film being something special is in the sheer scale of it. Miller is willing, often, to dwarf the convoy-chase which is at the heart of the narrative with shots of such vast emptiness that the vehicles, let alone the people within, are mere specks.
But the film is one of competing scales. So much of it is over-the-top, dialed to 11, grandiose and epic. Yet within this, Miller positions his characters in cramped and crowded spaces: the tunnels of Immortan Joe’s citadel, the can of the war-rig, the hidden passages within. The War-rig is at once too big to stop, and too small to hold its cargo: Furiosa, Max, the wives, Nux, and later the Vuvalini. Miller zooms in on the small-scale for moments of character too. Max’s tragically premature thumbs-up, Furiosa’s concerned gaze, Nux’s transitional moment with one of the wives (I think Capable). When Furiosa realises that her dream of a return to the green place is impossible, she is alone in the sand, as is Max when he realises that he cannot yet make his own way while Furiosa remains unredeemed.

In the beginning, though, there is little by way of establishing character or setting. Max is introduced with a monologue, alone, and is for reasons unknown and unimportant briefly pursued and captured.
Furiosa makes her entrance entering the war-rig to which her fate will be bound for the majority of the film. She turns off her allotted course abruptly, and we – like her war boys – are made to guess at her motives.
Quickly enough the chase is on, and nothing else really matters.
The vehicles are each a work of brutalist art, each amalgams of other vehicles, welded and bolted together, the demented dreams of mad mechanics. The fashions, likewise, stylised. The faces and bodies of the characters mis-sharpen, scarred, diseased, dirty. Furiosa’s amputation is much less disturbing than the misshapen bodies that follow her, these distended, swollen, broken, tumourous, inhumans.
The vehicular mayhem is impressive for the visceral reality Miller brings to the screen. The minimalist use of CGI gives real physicality to the action. The chase proceeds with the weight of careening steel and the roaring pace of fuel-injected V8s (often dual V8s, joined at the gearbox just as the lizard of the opening was a who headed beast with a single body). Cars and trucks go cartwheeling, crashing, crunching, colliding. Bodies leap, tumble, fall, are thrown to an unforgiving earth. Flames and explosions and always at full throttle.
There is power in the brutal physics which cartoonish CGI can never match, no matter the verisimilitude of its unreality.
It is undeniably a violent film, and yet Miller does not revel in gore, indeed he pans away from it several times, keeps it off screen. Max sees The Splendid Angharad go beneath Joe’s wheels, but we do not. The premature caesarean is not shown. Max returns from a distant explosion bathed in blood not his own, but we don’t see how he came to be wearing it. Immortan Joe’s torn face is briefly glimpsed, but mostly hidden. The film has an R rating in America (18+) but MA here in Australia (15+) and in the UK.
The film has been called a feminist action movie. In some ways this is reductive, in others it is explicitly so. It was hard not to think of the Bechdel test as Furiosa returns to the Vuvalini. While the two men (described merely as dependable/reliable – I can’t recall the exact quote on one viewing) wait in the war-rig, the screen is filled with women, 12 of them, multi-generational, discussing their world and their place in it, their history and their future.
But Bechdel is a limited metric to meet. Even more than leaping this low bar, in Fury Road it is the women who have agency, more so than the war boys such as Nux, certainly more so than the ‘blood-bag’ Max from the first part of the chase. Max’s destiny is shaped by his imprisonment, and by the decisions of others, especially Nux. In turn, Nux is manipulated by Joe’s deceit, his path chosen for him.
Not so Furiosa, nor the wives. They have re-shaped their destiny, have broken free of their imprisonments, and by their own power. No supernatural fortune. No rescuer come to their aid. It is revealed that The Splendid Angharad  had been agitating for escape and speaking against the objectification of herself and the other wives. The wives were not stolen or abducted by Furiosa, but that they begged her to take them with her.
Acquiescing was Furiosa’s decision, as was the moment she turned from the road between the Citadel and Gastown. She knew the risks and made the decision. She acted, and it was her act that initiated the chase and in cascading cause and effect drew Max and Nux into her story.
Later, when Max establishes his plan for return and redemption (which was always Furiosa’s goal, not his own, as the final shots of the film demonstrate), it is Furiosa’s agreement, on advice from the other women, which transforms the plan from thought to action.
More powerful even than the women’s screen presence and agency, is the respect they are afforded, both by Max, and by Miller.
The film also features a cast of scantily-clad supermodels, and at one point Megan Gale naked, yet Miller does not encourage the viewer to see them through a sexual lens. Even white-clad and wet in the desert, the wives are not objects of Max’s desire, and though Joe wants their return it is not framed in terms of his sexual desire for them. Undoubtedly he has impregnated them, or at least one of them, against their will. In this he is rapist, and they are survivors of rape, but the film clearly frames this as a battle for their reproductive powers, rather than revenge or retaliation. They do not wish to destroy Joe, only to escape him. They forgive his war-boy Nux, keeping him from being killed, despite Nux’s earlier attempts to return them to their prison. The wives are revolting against their objectification, against a life in which they are nothing more wombs. This is explicit in the graffiti they leave in the prison where Joe had kept them.
Likewise, Miller does not subject any of his female characters to rape, or threats of rape. They are not denigrated as bitches or whores or subjected to sexist degradation. It is not an assumed part of the world that rape is tolerated, or that it even occurs outside of the forced breeding by Immortan Joe. Even this is not presented as a sexual act, but as an act of control, literally an attempt to control resources, in the same way that he controls water. Women can reproduce, and that is their value to Joe, just as the women producing mothers’ milk (seen early in the film as a resource for Joe, at the end of the film it is these mothers who release the water for the people, freeing themselves and the water from Joe’s control).
It makes Joe undeniably the villain, but for the same reasons that his hoarding water and food while others starve make him villainous. It is a crime not only against the women, but against the whole community (as indeed rape is).
Miller has his women fighting in the front line, and in each case they hold their own. They fight without fear or favour. The Vuvalini, the wives, and especially Furiosa. Here is a character who could be so easily disempowered by the narrative, both as woman and as amputee, and especially when Max arrives. But Miller doesn’t have Max take her leadership from her. He becomes at times a tool at her disposal, eventually, at most, her trusted equal.
This is the respect Max shows. When he first approaches the women, he respects the threat they represent. He doesn’t allow Furiosa to come near him with the bolt-cutters, making one of the wives bring them instead. Even down the barrel of a shotgun (unloaded, in a beautiful nod to mad Max 2), and even without her bionic hand attached, Max marks her as a threat. And he is right to. Despite his precautions, she attacks. She does not hesitate to pull the trigger. The fight scene that follows was amazing in its choreography, and in how it managed the various pugilists. The interplay between Max and Furiosa, and between Nux and the wives and the combinations between, was magnificent.
Later, with one shot left and having missed twice already, Max knows that Furiosa should take the shot. She does, and she makes it where he could not. She was the superior marksman (pun intended). Max accepted this without comment or complaint. He did not see this as an insult or a challenge to his masculinity (unlike some of the MRA complaining in his behalf). He respected Furiosa’s skills. Just as they took turns driving or repairing the war-rig.
In short, I loved this film.

I loved it for the cars and the crashes, for the explosions, for the insane stunts and the sheer brutal reality of them.

I loved it for its epic sandstorm and fire tornadoes that could lift a car.

I loved the madness if it all, the doof warrior harnessed and blasting guitar riffs across the already blasted landscape.

I loved that it was a Mad Max film, like the final chase in Mad Max 2 (Road Warrior) dialed up and up until there was no scale for it to fit.
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I loved that in one split second, in Max’s flashbacks, we saw Toecutter’s bulging eyes again, just as we did near the end if the first Mad Max in 1979. (and because Immortan Joe and The Toecutter were both Hugh Keays-Byrne)I loved that Furiosa stood at the end, eye swollen closed (in another wonderful nod to Mad Max 2: Road Warrior).

I loved the mad war-boys screaming ‘Witness!’ and plunging to suicidal glory.
I loved Charlize Theron kicking arse, and Megan Gale too – briefly.
I loved the biker gang of septuagenarian women who hoarded seeds but weren’t above killing for the right cause.
I loved the brutal hand-to-hand.
What didn’t I love?
Not much.
Hardy was kind of in and out. His accent was sometimes pseudo-Australian, other times not even nearly. At one point he delivered a line (I’m not sure which, in the cab of the war-rig about 3/4 through the film) where he seemed to be doing his Bane voice.
Furiosa made a miraculous recovery from a stab wound and a collapsed lung. Another stab cured her. And a blood transfusion. I guess her and Max were the same blood type? Or something?
(Edit: It has been pointed out to me that Max is established as a universal blood donor in the opening sequence by the tattoos Joe’s War-boys put on him. I must have missed that detail. Even my minor quibbles are invalid.)
I’m quibbling. No one cared about that. We forgive our films those details for the sake of an heroic closing image.

‘Enfolded’ in Aurealis #78

Great news!

My short story, ‘Enfolded’, features in the latest (78th) edition of Australia’s longest running Fantasy and Science-Fiction magazine, Aurealis.

Aurealis-#78-cover-purple-sky-dragon_1

It’s a “bracing neo-noir” about a guy with a special power who thinks he has left his criminal past behind, only to find himself dragged back by fraternal loyalty.

It has been a goal of mine for some time to have my fiction grace these (electronic) pages. Aurealis has a great reputation for quality and is a well established part of the Australian spec-fic marketplace. In addition to new fiction, they provide great non-fiction material for readers and writers within the genre and beyond, and have thoughtful reviews of Australian and international work.

The 78th edition is available for download in a range of formats, including epub and mobi for ereaders. At only $3 Australian and less than $20 for a subscription, it’s great value.

https://aurealis.com.au/aurealis-78-is-here/

 


2014 reading: Short Stories.

I fell well short of my goal to read 100 short stories in 2014. Two stories a week, every week, sounded manageable. It wasn’t. This year I’m going for 52 shorts stories: One a week.

My reviews of (most of) the 2014 stories I read are here, with links to the stories where they’re available online.

January:

“A Letter from Your Mother” by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley in Daily Science Fiction (DSF) was a good little flash fiction in epistolary form that used one voice to develop two well realised characters and the relationship between them.

“The night my Dad became English” by Joseph O’Connor in the Irish Independent was a reflective piece from a son to his father, which touched on issues of family, identity, nation-hood and those decisions we make in our lives which shape who we are to be.

“In the Dying Light, We Saw a Shape” by Jeremiah Tolbert inLightspeed Magazine mixed a lot of stylistic and genre ingredients – some quite new, others a little cliched – into an interesting near-future sci-fi about our place in the universe.

“Apotheosis” by Rosamund Hodge in the Lightspeed Magazine was a Fantasy piece exploring the meaning of divinity and the role of the deity in societies. It had a number of imaginative elements in its world, and was stylistically like a parable or myth more so than a modern narrative.

“After the Trains Stopped” by J Kyle Turner in DSF was a great story about an Artificially Intelligent (and empathetic) factory.  It developed its central premise (and character) well, but for me its greatest strength was the creeping Horror element.

“The Next Generation” by Michael Adam Robson in DSF was a short sci-fi in the old-school sense of a scientist struggling with the moral implications of his invention. It runs along a relatively predictable path where the creation surpasses its creator, and the last line lays on the moral a little thick.

February:

“Baby Feet” by Rene Sears in DSF was a sci-fi invasion story told from an interesting perspective. I really engaged with the character and her circumstances. Unfortunately the ending came in thick lumps of expository dialogue.

“Saltcedars” by Shannon Peavey in DSF was an alternative world fantasy with an interesting central concept. The world was nicely built and the main character realised. It was well crafted and structured, right until the final sentence, which I think dropped with a clunk and robbed the ending of some of its power.

“Mermaid” by Jonathan Schneeweis in DSF was the second mermaid-related story I have read in the last few weeks, and I think the better of the two, despite – or perhaps because of – being less complex. There is some foreshadowing which is a little too obvious, but the turn in the narrative was good and the recurring motif of the counting of ribs was a nice way to tie it all together.

“The Seventeen Executions of Signore Don Vashta” by Peter M Ballin DSF was an excellent tale of an unlikely friendship between a man who would not stay dead and the man who was once his executioner. In the interests of full disclosure, I know Peter through a friend. The quality of this story though should speak for itself. The narrative voice is engaging and the development of the relationship between the characters very well handled.

“The Devil as a White Swan” by Jane Ormond in Machines Will Not Give Change (a print anthology produced by Cardigan Press) is a more Lit-fic flash fiction about a gift given by an insensitive man and the relationship break-up that precipitates. It’s a flash fiction piece, at about 500 words, and opens with a strong tone, but I found the first person subjective a little suffocating and the inner monologue was hard for me to relate to.

“21 Steps to Enlightenment (Minus One)” by LaShawn M. Wanak in Strange Horizons was a story about the ways we can change our lives. The central premise seemed initially to be quite limited, but Wanak took it into such interesting dimensions. The narrator, and the narrator’s mother, worked well together to give opposing perspectives on the phenomenon of the spiral staircases, and the style made palatable what might otherwise have been heavy-handed symbolism. It took me a few false starts, but I really enjoyed this one.

March:

“Inventory” by Carmen Maria Machado in Strange Horizons was amazing. The story is kinda NSFW, tracing the life of the narrator through her sexual encounters, but not graphic. Machado allows the back-story to come through gradually, seeping into the tale and growing – dare I say spreading – until it overwhelms. I sat a moment after reading this and just appreciated it. Really a great piece of writing.

“Walking Home” by Catherine Krahe in DSF had a well-realised protagonist whom it was easy to empathise with. The fantasy elements were minimal and had little direct influence on the plot, but there was a sense of the setting being second-world and the world building was revealed gradually to have depth and texture. It seemed to take a while to get going, and to end abruptly, but I enjoyed it.

“Litany of the Family Bean” by Gemma Files in Strange Horizons is not actually a short story, it being filed under poetry, but I include it here because it did feel as if it had narrative qualities and the setting and characters I found fascinating. The use of language early in the piece was evocative and drew me in. The shock value of the opening  fell away quickly, replaced by a curiosity which wasn’t quite sated. Always leave them wanting more, I suppose.

“How to Become a Robot” by A.Merc Rustad in Scigentasy used a variety of story-telling forms and techniques to assemble an interesting narrative which explored gender and identity and belonging. Strong characterization and surprisingly effective use of 1st and 2nd person shifts.
“Like Bread” by Patricia Russo in SQ Mag was character focused with a sense of otherworldliness. Interesting structure which allowed for foreshadowing and a building of tension/suspense.
“The Church of Asag” by Cameron Trost in SQ Ma was built on a good concept, with interesting use of setting. At times overly direct in exposition. Rushed/unsatisfying ending.
“Codename Delphi” by Linda Nagata in Lightspeed was Sci-Fi (ish). Near future with a focus on remote and drone warfare. Well structured and communicated the frenetic balancing act well. Simple, linear plot.
April :
“The Final Girl” by Shira Lipkin in Strange Horizons was a good meta-horror piece, reminiscent both of Freddy Kruger and Whedon’s Cabin.
A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings: A Tale For Childrenby Gabriel Garcia Marquez was just wonderful. Utterly wonderful.
“The Armies of Elfland” by Eileen Gunn and Michael Swanwick  inLightspeed has a really fascinating opening, but then let’s fall away some of its most original images and concepts and almost – thankfully never entirely – reverts to familiar tropes. Some cliche moments drop in with a thud, but engaging and interesting throughout.
“Select Mode” by Mark Lawrence and available for free on his websiteprovides a good example of Jorg’s voice and Lawrence’s style, and of the fusion of Fantasy and SciFi typical in his work.
“Alsiso” by KJ Bishop in Lightspeed was a narrative without a protagonist, unless a lexeme can be protagonist. Tracing the history of a word through elevation, deterioration, semantic shift and all manner of reclassifications and transmutations, the author gives an insight into an evolving culture that makes it’s way from foreign to familiar. Cleverly written and enjoyable to read.
May:
“Zombie” by Chuck Palahniuk in Playboy (link is sfw) was a thought provoking story of dissatisfaction and confusion. It wades full into the despair of modernity, lashes celebrity, consumerist culture, and yet finds some hope in modern hyper-connectivity. Written with a beautifully direct, conversationalist style.
“Abomination Rises of Filthy Wings” by Rachel Swirsky in Apex Magazine was a very difficult story to read. A trigger warning is given, with cause. Apparently written to show that a domestic/relationship revenge fantasy could be readable, the result is genuinely disturbing. The mix of sexual dominion and the domesticity of the violence was horrific, as was the brutality and contempt, unhidden behind a gossamer-thin veil of the supernatural. A compelling but difficult story: undeniably well-written but not enjoyable.
“A Tank Only Fears Four Things” by Seth Dickinson in Lightspeed was a good exploration of PTSD in some alt-history, alt-Earth that is disturbingly familiar and yet suffuses with novelty. The Russian ethnicity adds a sense of the other, but ultimately is tangential. The story never quite fulfills the promise of its title and opening line, undercutting the fantastic element for metaphor.
“Paperclips and Memories and Things That Won’t be Missed” by Caroline M Yoachim in Apex Magazine was a beautiful, touching story. At times almost horror, at times melancholy, at times strangely beatific. I keep wanting to use the word ‘haunting’, which would be accurate but rather trite.
“Schrödinger’s Outlaw” by Matthew W Baugh in DSF was a very short short. The opening paragraphs had a well set scene, conveyed economically and without the exposition seeming too lumpy. The protag’s voice was clear. From there it fell into a sadly predictable path. The most harmful thing, for me was that it fundamentally misunderstood its central premise. Schrödinger’s cat is not ‘dead or alive’, but ‘dead-and-alive’ – the whole paradox hinges on the superposition of two simultaneous, yet contradictory states. By then end this seemed a bad pun that went too far.
June:
“Mephisto” by Alan Baxter in DSF was a well-contained tale. Tight and lean.  Baxter uses the dichotomies well, the crowd’s adoration and the magician’s hatred in return. The showmanship and pretense serves well to orient and then disorient the reader. It’s a creeping horror, more apprehension than fear, really. Baxter shows his hand artfully at the end, the exposition delivered but not dropped upon the reader, revealed but not ruined.
“Days Like These” by Erica L Satifka in DSF was a good Sc-Fi concept well handled. The protagonist was vividly drawn, as was the world in which he lived. The uncertainty was maintained well throughout, and the reliability of the narrator gradually questioned.
It is more a back-handed compliment than a criticism to say that it left me wanting more, but the ending was a little dissatisfying.
“Anyway Angie” by Daniel Jose Older, published by Tor, was a case of a good character and great atmospheric prose. The first person worked, the characterization and exposition of back-story was smoothly given without chunks. I found my way to this via Kameron Hurley, whose novel I am reading. It shares a bug motif, which here is used effectively for horror. The story did feel dislocated though, perhaps I wanted it to be an excerpt of some larger work, or perhaps that balance of what the reader was given and what the reader had to infer was ever-so-slightly awry. A good story though. I’d read more.
“Trigger Warning Breakfast” was published in various places (I read ithere). This anonymous story is a punch in the guts. Perhaps a webcomic, perhaps an illustrated narrative, it is told with short, stark sentences, crudely but effectively illustrated. A very powerful and personal piece.
July
“Polynia” (available to read through Tor) is familiar in China Mieville’s oeuvre. Weird and fantastic, a London familiar and yet changed, the narrator slightly distant from their own narration, hints of politics, a cameo from a rail-road, clever wordplay, impressive prose. The vocabulary is accessible, the core concept visually arresting and ultimately unresolved. The changes in the world are accepted because there’s nothing else to do than to accept them.

August

“Selkie Stories are for Losers” appeared in Strange Horizons and was nominated for a Hugo Award. It is a mix of the modern working class domestic narrative and ancient myth/fairytale. It’s told cleverly, through narrative denial and breadcrumbs of exposition. At times the short segments felt a little too isolated from each other, and only in re-reading could they be more comfortably pieced together. That’s a minor quibble on a well told story though.

“The Turing Test” appeared in Lightspeed Magazine. I liked the subject matter, but to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the concept of the Turing Test the ‘twist’ was easily picked (perhaps at fault here is the title?), and the second part seemed unnecessary. The dialogue was very good, and the prose flowed smoothly. Didn’t seem to do very much with its length though.
“Resurrection Points” appeared in Strange Horizons and attracted deserved acclaim. It was beautifully written. An insight into my own world through a different lens. Terrifying in the banality of violence and death, and in the sense of hopelessness or inevitability. The ending was a touch bathetic, but that’s a minor quibble on an outstanding story.
“Stone Hunger” appeared in Clarkesworld. I struggled with this one early. It felt like I was flailing for meaning, no foundation to build on. The tense was a barrier for me. Once we were in the city though things got very good, very quickly. I loved many of the concepts, clashing powers as taste sensations, the stone-eater turned sentient statue, the city of monsters. Once into it, I really enjoyed it. Very descriptive and with a strong narrative voice.
September:
“The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal was publishedby Tor.com. It’s a beautiful story. An alt-history retro-futurist Sci-Fi. A return to a more classical Sci-Fi, where space faring and punch-card programmes and the mystery of Mars loomed large. It’s a story infused with dying and departing, concerned with what legacy each generation leaves to the next. As mid20thC sci-fi has left its legacy on this generation. An atypical protagonist – past middle-aged and female – is drawn with tender realism, and the difficulty of her dilemmas is frankly, honestly drawn. The ending ties the threads together in a satisfying, if somewhat convenient, solution.
“Wikihistory” was also from Tor.com. A clever little story told as a series of forum posts and dealing with tropes of time travel and determinism. It tests out Godwin’s Law, and presents us with an alternative view of cultural assumptions. The plot-premise is familiar, but this is a fresh approach.
“Enemy States” by Karin Lowachee was published by Apex (and part of their Military Sci-Fi anthology) It was an epistolary narrative, and frequently told in the second person. I found that it shifted in time in curious ways, sometimes in ways hard to follow.
It did have moments of beauty, both in terms of its attention to detail and in its prose. The central relationship was finely drawn, a romantic-tragedy set against the backdrop of an interstellar war.
“We are the Cloud” was an excellent story by Sam J Miller, published in Lightspeed. I really enjoyed it. A near-future sci-fi. The technology is plausible and integral and its significance mounts as the story progresses. The wounded, vulnerable protagonist is taken down some dark paths, and us with him, but he never loses our sympathy.
“Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind) was a story by Holly Black that also appeared in Lightspeed. I almost didn’t read it all. What a mistake that would have been.
I don’t generally like the 2nd person. I don’t generally like lists as narrative scaffolds (and Rule 1 annoyed me from the start). The exposition on several occasions came in thick dumps. This had so much going against it that I nearly bailed before the end of the second ‘rule’.
But for all of that the story turned me fully around. The characterization, the rich and deep world-building, the twisting plot, the moments of genuine emotion. This packs a lot into a story that could have been so much less. Excellent. This is the sort of story for which I undertook this project. This taught me a lot about being a better story teller.
“As Good as New” was in Tor.com, a story by Charlie Jane Anders. It’s a mash-up of apocalypse, genie wish cliche, and post-modernist theatre.
I’m at a bit of a loss for this. I don’t know how it worked so well, but it worked really, really well.
Wonderfully relatable protag. The ennui of a western millennial middle class. Patient plotting that allowed the story to meander pleasantly without ever getting lost.
October:
“Tomorrow is waiting” by Holli Mintzer appeared in Strange Horizonsback in 2011. I only just found it and read it through some aggregator site (I forget which) listing good short stories about AI. This is a nice story about an AI muppet kind if accidentally achieving sentience. The writing is stark, quite bare of description, but it has warmth and a beating heart. Anji’s not a strong protag, but she’s relatable. The conflict leaks from the piece in the final third, but the effect of this is a positive ending note and a view of sentient AI which is optimistic, rather than fearful.
November:
“Brain, Brain, Brain” By Puneet Dutt appeared in Apex. It’s a very cool little poem, clearly aware of tropes and prepared to flirt with them before twisting to the zombie POV. The imploring insistence of ‘we’re not the bad guys.’ Some beautiful use of language.

‘Bound’ Review

Disclosure: I met Alan Baxter once, briefly, at Genrecon. He seemed like a great guy, and since then I’ve been following him on Twitter and FB and reading some of his short fiction. He’s a writer I admire, a local writer too. He’s always been generous with advice and with sharing his experiences of being a writer, and I’ve learnt a lot from him. He’s given me a very valuable perspective of what being a writer entails. I was really happy to hear that he got the book deal, and I was looking forward to reading about Alex Caine.

Review:

‘Bound’ drops us straight into the action. We’re in Caine’s head and he’s in a fight, an illegal MMA match somewhere in Sydney’s underworld. We are quickly introduced to Caine’s ability – to see the ‘shades’ of his opponent’s intent. It makes him a formidable fighter, so much so that he attracts the unwanted attention of an organised crime boss. When a mysterious Englishman arrives who recognises Caine’s powers, and offers to teach him more about himself, the fighter reluctantly follows his new mentor’s call. Thus begins a globe-trotting adventure of rapidly escalating magic and quests to find ancient objects of great power.

This is Urban Fantasy with a magical bent and lashings of sex and violence. If you like ancient prophecies and street fights and magic and shadowy organisations in the wainscoting of normal life, try this book.

There are possible spoilers from here on, but if you want to know more, and are prepared to risk spoilers, read on.

Photo courtesy of author's website

Photo courtesy of author’s website

There are some very cool concepts here. I haven’t read Baxter’s original – self-published – novels, but their titles echo here. Some characters sit meaningfully at the edges of Caine’s story and I suspect they’d be even more meaningful to readers familiar with Baxter’s earlier work. The magesign to which Caine is so perceptive is a great idea. Other elements are from more familiar tropes: elemental control, warlocks, grimoires, gargoyles, faeries, ancient demi-gods, shape-shifters. Baxter has thrown them all into a blender of his own design though, and they each come out with some new twist. It’s in combining these elements that Baxter is at his best.

I also really enjoyed the globe-trotting. Australia, England, Iceland, Canada, Italy, Scotland… it was like Bond, if Bond was a magically empowered brawler. Baxter evokes each location in his writing and the shifting geography, the litany of airports, adds a layer of the familiar and mundane over which the supernatural elements can rise.

As we become more familiar with Caine’s growing confidence in his own powers, we are shown the even greater forces opposing him. It’s a steep incline and Baxter drives us forward relentlessly, ever-changing, ever-escalating. The consequence of this is that the stakes quickly become very high indeed, perhaps too quickly. Caine’s transition from neophyte to dominance is even quicker. I found that he lost me a little somewhere on the climb. The Caine of the early chapters was a guy I could relate to. By the latter half of the book this was no longer the case. The previously engaging fight scenes lost their fizz when the outcome was no longer in doubt. A fighter out of his depth fighting for his life against two gargoyles is tense. An invincible superpower tearing through powerful opponents with ease, less so. I also struggled to maintain my sympathy for the character after his decision to take a life, even if that was a decision influenced by a force at that point uncontrolled. Another review I read suggested that Caine was an author-surrogate, and though I wouldn’t entirely agree with that assessment, I can see where it comes from.

The antagonists are varied. The sub-contractor was probably the most interesting, and I would have liked to have seen more of him. The Weird Sisters were also strong. Their introduction was one of the best scenes in the book, clearly the darkest and most horrific. I’m not easily put-off by horror, but that scene in a Scottish hotel required a pause for recovery. Again they were perhaps under-utilised. Other antagonists came and went.

Mr Hood and Miss Sparks are the most enduring, and ultimately the truest antagonists of the novel (other than the force behind the grimoire). I felt Miss Sparks was one of the more interesting POV characters. There seemed to be more to her than was revealed. Perhaps this waits for me in the second and third volumes of the series. Mr Hood was menacing and confident and a good counter-point to Caine. The Sparks/Hood relationship was repulsive and fascinating, even though the sexual elements of it sometimes dropped in with a thud. I have no qualms about the sexual content, and even as it is Baxter is never overly explicit with it, but there were some instances that felt gratuitous.

Which brings me to Silhouette. I didn’t like Silhouette. I understand how she was necessary to the narrative and how Caine couldn’t have achieved what he did without her. I understood why he went from Welby to Silhouette, why he came to depend on her, and then she on him. I didn’t feel that the emotional connection really evolved naturally, but that wasn’t really a problem – emotional connections can be unexpected and inexplicable. I just didn’t like her, as a character. She promised to become quite interesting, briefly, or to reveal a side of herself to which Caine was unaware, but it never really happened. As Caine’s power grew her independence and agency seemed to contract accordingly. A shame, because she entered with a certain sense of self that seemed by the end to have been diminished. Her (many) sex scenes with Caine were unsexy, probably deliberately so, and some of them deeply discomforting – for much the same reasons as with Hood/Sparks.

‘Bound’ kept me hooked throughout. I finished the whole thing in a week, and there’s plenty in it to keep you wanting to turn the next page (or swipe the screen in my case). It’s the novel of a writer who knows his craft and can deliver on a promise. I’ll read the others in the series too, at least because I’m interested in where Baxter goes from here. With such a powerful protagonist, and such powerful enemies already defeated, I’m sure there’ll be something even bigger to come.

***Alan Baxter will be in Melbourne this Friday (26th Sept) and will be signing books. Check out his website – http://www.alanbaxteronline.com – or follow him on twitter – @AlanBaxter – for details.***


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