Monday, October 17, 2011

Why We Never Watch THE MATRIX at My House

One night in 1999 I got a phone call from my old friend and co-author David Allen.
“Hey,” he said. “Have you seen that new movie, The Matrix?”
“No,” I replied. “I haven’t seen it. Is it good?”
“Don’t see it,” David warned me. “It’s going to break your heart.”
I did see it.
It broke my heart.
It’s been twelve years since that night. My college-aged kid tells friends that The Matrix was forbidden in our home (It was.) Close friends can tell you horror stories of the occasions when, usually after having more than my share of drinks, I broke down and told them the Matrix story. They never want to hear it again, and when I reach for that third drink people scatter just in case.
If you’re a writer, maybe you have a similar tale.
In 1993, my friend David Allen and I collaborated on a science fiction novel. Well, it was 48,000 words, and to some people (in the 90s, anyhow) that was in the murky land between novel and novella.
Remember those days?
The voice of Tom Selleck (Magnum, PI himself) came through our television sets, telling us that one magical day we could watch the movie we want the minute we want; we would be able to borrow books from a thousand miles away, carry our medical history on a plastic card, and buy concert tickets from a cash machine—and AT&T was the company that would bring it to us.
Our new Vice-President Al Gore told us that there would soon be a worldwide information superhighway, in part because of legislation he proposed and helped pass as a Senator (or, from a different perspective, Al Gore invented the internet tubes.)
At the University of Illinois, researchers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications introduced MOSAIC—the first worldwide web browser (I could never have guessed at the time that fifteen years later I would be working part-time at NCSA doing something called “digital history.”)
And in 1993, my friend David Allen and I were inspired by all those things to write a book, which we finished in early 1994. We tried to imagine where a worldwide web and virtual reality might take us. We incorporated elements from many of our favorite authors, from the writers of Doctor Who and Chris Claremont’s run on the X-men comics, to Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. There were definitely elements of William Gibson and cyberpunk. By far our biggest influence, and the one to whom our novel was an homage, was Phillip K. Dick. Dick’s stories often centered on an everyman protagonist who discovers that nothing is what it seemed; that reality is purely subjective (many of Dick’s works have been translated to the movie screen: Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, Impostor… perhaps you detect a theme.)
Here’s a teaser for that book, All That We See or Seem:
Will Shaw wanted a better life. A parenting license, maybe a physical upgrade for his wife. But he has a nasty habit of asking too many questions, an infamous radical brother, and a directive from the Committee of Programmers to report to The Marcheswhere reality and sanity blur, and which few return from. Shaw discovers the government’s shocking secrets, but it is Robert Jenkins, the agent assigned to watch over him, who must face the consequences. Both men learn that nothing in their world is what they thought it was.
We never got anywhere with the book. We submitted it everywhere –really, everywhere, at least every place listed in Writer’s Digest’s Novel and Short Story Writer’s Guide. I have a stack of (mostly) polite rejections; the most common complaint, when one was specified, was length. We set the manuscript aside, planning to re-visit and expand it later. And of course, life got in the way. I sold a western short story, to Louis L’Amour Western Magazine, and got sort of wrapped up in westerns and historical fiction. I wrote a 140,000 word Civil War epic. I didn’t think much about that old manuscript, or the several other science fiction projects I had started (and sometimes finished.) Which is a shame, because when I finally did revisit it years later I found it had aged well.
And then came The Matrix. It was kind of a similar plot. Well, no, that’s not exactly true. It was an extremely similar plot, down to some fairly minute details (although radically different in many ways, as well.) Now, I’m not saying the Wachowsky Brothers ripped off our idea—heck, unless one of them was an assistant editor or slush-puppy at a publishing house or sci-fi magazine in ’94 and ’95, there’s no earthly way they could ever have seen it. And in reality (no pun intended), our work (like theirs) was not exactly the most original idea in the world; I think it is very likely they drew on the same antecedents, and the same 90s zeitgeist, that we did.
What it did mean was… any hope we had of getting a publisher to take on our long-languishing project died an agonizing death. Any casual reader picking it up would say “Huh. This is oh-so-familiar… what a cheap rip-off of The Matrix.”
In science fiction, the idea is the thing. To tell the truth, I stuck with westerns for a long time after that. It doesn’t matter how many other people have written about Custer or Wyatt Earp, you can still find new ways to approach the material. Dave stopped writing for awhile, and only picked it back up in recent years.
But you know what? I think our story was better; at the very least, it can stand on its own.
The publishing world has gone through some rapid, crazy changes in the last couple of years. I have been re-releasing all my old stuff as ebooks, or in paper through createspace. So have most of my writer friends –it is possible, not only to read new stuff, but to find books you haven’t seen since the 70s or 80s for today’s ereaders. So David and I have decided that the time has come to unleash our bastard child on the world. It’s available now on smashwords, where 40%  of it is previewable, and amazon. Check it out here:
Give it a try, if you like sci fi. Tell me what you think.  

Thursday, October 13, 2011

My Personal West

My thanks to Richard Prosch, who gave me a forum to talk about my views of the Mythic West at his website. He has posted several other essays about "My Personal West" by Western authors, and they're all worth a read.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Clint Eastwood, Heroes, and Antiheroes

I was recently reading up on the classic screenwriting (and general storytelling) template “The Hero’s Journey” and was reminded of something I noticed a long time ago about a couple of Clint Eastwood western classics. What struck me was the assertion that the hero’s journey and the anti-hero’s journey are identical –up to a point. The article I was reading implied that, whereas the classic hero is an archetype of self-sacrifice and self-control, or “goodness,” the antihero is linked more closely to his base, animalistic side. As a result, the hero’s journey will, at the turning point, see the hero resist temptation and be redeemed, ascending to a moral summit, whereas an antihero will at the same point succumb to temptation and descend into damnation. (Think Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader.)

I’m not so sure this is always the case, but I can’t deny that it often is. And thinking about that made me remember a thought I’ve had for years: that The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven are the same story, told in reverse and with opposite endings.

Let’s take a brief look at the plots of those two films.
The Outlaw Josey Wales:

Josey Wales starts out as a good, honest, family man (in Missouri, on the eve of the Civil War.) His family is murdered by Union guerrillas, and in response he joins a band of Confederate guerrillas. At the end of this very nasty war, he refuses to surrender- and becomes an outlaw, hunted by the federal army.

Wales is clearly a loner –but is not allowed to remain so for long. In his travels he manages to pick up several hangers-on, all of whom are dependent on him in one way or another. There is the old Confederate Cherokee, a young Navajo woman, and a group of settlers that includes a Yankee woman and her granddaughter. By the end of the movie, Wales has brokered peace between the settlers and the Comanches, and his primary nemesis has strongly hinted that he has no intention of “finding” him. Wales has become the nucleus of a community, and an agent of peace rather than chaos. No longer a loner bent on revenge, he has been redeemed and returned in many ways to the condition he had lived in before his family’s murder.


William Munny also starts out as a farmer and a family man, albeit a widower, raising his children on a pig farm. But this was not how his life had always been. Munny was a reformed gunman; in his youth he had been a cold, vicious killer. He had changed because of his beloved wife. An opportunity is presented to him, however, to improve his family’s lot by hunting down some cowboys for a bounty (one of them had cut up a young prostitute, whose friends advertised a reward in order to get justice.)

Subsequent events –including the death of his partner –force Munny to confront the ghosts of his past, ghosts he had been trying to avoid for years. In a tearful drinking binge, he relives the horrific acts of his youth. When he finally arrives to take revenge for his friend’s murder, he has reverted to the cold killer he had been before. He has not been forgiven –not by the ghosts of his victims, and ultimately not by himself.

Josey Wales’ story is one of a hero’s redemption. He goes from being a loner to being the foundation of a community –he is loved, and forgiven. He pulls away from the precipice of damnation that the war has drawn him to.

Will Munny’s attempts to be a simple man and a good citizen are doomed. He is pulled back to that precipice, which he had managed to withdraw from once before, and this time he tumbles into it. He descends into the darkness, and clearly feels much more natural and at home there than he ever did while trying to deny that side of himself. Note how confident and controlled he is at the end of the film, once he has finally given his demons free rein.

Eastwood’s famous Man With No Name from the Leone trilogy is an antihero in the sense that he seems amoral at times, and does not display the classic, noble attributes of the western hero. Will Munny is an antihero in a more literary sense. Even though he survives, the audience knows that he has lost the really important battle, the battle with his own dark side. Josey Wales has won that battle, and found contentment.
The two films are like bookends. I recommend you watch them again from this perspective, and that fact will become even clearer.

I also realized that I have done something similar in two Civil War –era novels I have written. The first, Bound for the Promise-Land, is about an ex-slave turned Union soldier and his quest for the meaning of freedom. Filled with self-doubt, he eventually discovers the truth within himself and finds peace and redemption. The second, Good Rebel Soil, is about the infamous Confederate guerrilla Champ Ferguson –who, along with Bloody Bill Anderson, served as a template for Asa Carter’s fictional Josey Wales. Ferguson is pulled, by his uncontrolled passions, into a self-destructive path that he knows will end in Hell. The first novel has been re-released, and the other will be soon; I think they are two of my best, and taken together give an overview of the Civil War from both sides, as well as food for thought regarding what makes a hero (or an anti-hero.)