Spectrum of Speculative Fiction Contest!

One of the most rewarding aspects of being on WordPress has been interacting with fellow bloggers and joining forces with other writers.  There are so many talented authors out there, and if we join together, there’s no limit to what can be accomplished, especially in this Brave New World of e-book publishing.

Today’s post will be the first of two consecutive posts featuring other authors.  (On Monday, I’ll be conducting the first-ever interview on The Eye-Dancers site!)  It’s a lot of fun introducing you to them (or, re-introducing you to them, as the case may be, since you might already be a big fan of theirs!).  So, without further delay, I’d like to talk about a great blog hop/contest/giveaway that my friend and fellow speculative fiction author Tammy Salyer is a part of.

I am very grateful to Tammy for interviewing me on her own website about a month ago.  If you’d like to read that interview, please click here!  (I also encourage you to browse through her entire site, too.  It is chock-full of very interesting and insightful posts.)

Tammy just released the second novel in her Spectras Arise Trilogy, Contract of Betrayal, and is part of a great blog hop called the Spectrum of Speculative Fiction Contest.

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I definitely encourage you to click on the link and take a look.  Tammy and twelve other speculative fiction writers are teaming together today through Sunday (March 8–March 10), offering all manner of fascinating reads for free, ranging from epic fantasy to military science fiction.  There is also a contest associated with the event, and you will have an opportunity to win a $20 Amazon gift card.  So, what are you waiting for?  Head over to Tammy’s site and check out the Spectrum of Speculative Fiction Contest.

Here is more information on Tammy’s new release, Contract of Betrayal . . .

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“In a bid to free the settlers of Agate Beach from their dependence on picking at Admin scraps, Corps-deserter Aly Erikson’s crew is willing to make a few deals, even with the devil. When Aly learns her friends have deceived her, she has to decide which is stronger: her sense of having been betrayed or her allegiance to the rebel cause. After an old ally offers her a convenient escape to a new life, the decision should be easy. But when the Corps threatens to wipe out everything that matters to her, the only course of action left is the same one she’s taken for as long as she can remember—fighting back.”
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–“Tammy Salyer is a speculative fiction writer who dabbles in many genres, often combining everything from horror to romance in one piece. Her debut novel, Contract of Defiance, a military science fiction adventure, was released to acclaim in 2012, and the follow-up, Contract of Betrayal, just came out in February 2013.

You can also read the latest in top not-so-secret mental detritus, including movie reviews and author interviews, from Tammy at her blog: http://tammysalyer.wordpress.com, or visit her on Twitter @TammySalyer, where she’s probably blathering about pro-cycling races or single-malt Scotch.

She hopes you enjoy reading her works and welcomes your reviews.”

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Thanks so much for reading!  I hope you’ll take part in the Contest and enjoy some great new reading material!

–Mike

The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street

Over the course of The Eye-Dancers, the four main characters undergo many dangerous, even life-threatening, situations.  They experience parallel universes, recurring nightmares that seem all-too-real, and the prospect of being permanently marooned in a strange, alien world.  Obviously, they have their work cut out for them.

However, perhaps the most significant obstacle they must face in their quest to solve the mystery and return home is . . . themselves.  They often resort to in-fighting, bickering, and the threat of violence looms, especially between Joe Marma and Marc Kuslanski.  Joe is the impulsive one, a natural leader, but quick to anger, and always eager to use his fists to resolve a conflict.  Marc is highly rational, logical to the core, a science wiz who continually tries to use quantum theory to solve their problems.  Needless to say, the two rarely see eye to eye.

This theme of turning on a friend, a neighbor, in times of adversity is explored in one of the truly classic episodes of The Twilight Zone— “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” –which originally aired exactly 53 years ago–in March 1960.  Like many of the better Twilight Zone episodes, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is timeless, and it holds up very well today, half a century later.

The story opens peacefully enough, with an idyllic street scene . . .

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In the opening narration, Rod Serling says in a voice-over:

“Maple Street, U.S.A.  Late summer.  A tree-lined little world of front-porch gliders, barbecues, the laughter of children, and the bell of an ice-cream vendor.  At the sound of the roar and the flash of light, it will be precisely 6:43 p.m. on Maple Street” . . .

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“This is Maple Street on a late Saturday afternoon,” Serling continues.  “Maple Street, in the last calm and reflective moment before the monsters came.”

In the wake of the flashing light and roar from the sky, the residents discover that the power has gone out, the phone lines are down.  Even the radio reception is shot.  They are, in effect, thrown back into the “Dark Ages,” as one of them says, all the trappings of their (and our) modern society gone in an instant.

The neighbors congregate in the street, discussing the situation.

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One of them, Steve Brand, suggests maybe the disturbance was caused by a meteor.  After all, what other explanation can there be?  Another neighbor, Pete Van Horn, decides to walk over to the next block and see if they’ve lost power over there, as well.

After Pete leaves, Steve and another resident decide they should drive downtown.  Maybe the town clerk’s office knows what’s going on.  But then a young boy, Tommy, tells them not to leave.

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They don’t want you to,” Tommy warns.  Steve asks him who “they” are.

“”Whatever was in the thing that came over,” the boy says.  He goes on to say it’s the same in every alien-invasion story he’s ever read.  The aliens send along advance scouts to earth–maybe a father, mother, and two kids.  They look like humans, but they aren’t.  They’re  sent ahead to prepare for the mass landing.

The neighbors all stand by.  Many of them look around, suddenly suspicious of the others.  A woman blows it off, asking how they could listen to a boy spout off from some comic book plot, and actually take it seriously.  Their nerves are frayed, that’s all, she says.  The last few minutes have been weird.

They get weirder when Steve Brand tries to start his car.  It won’t start.  Tommy again says the aliens don’t want him to leave.

Steve then quips, “Well, I guess what we need to do is run a check of the neighborhood and find out which ones of us are really human.”  Some of the others smile at this, but their faces are tight, tense.  It is clear that darker emotions are roiling just beneath the surface.

At this point, another neighbor, Les Goodman, comes outside and tries to start his car.  It, too, won’t start.  But when he gets out, the car starts on its own.  This causes a few of the other residents of Maple Street to question why his car started, and by itself no less.  And then a woman tells the congregation of neighbors that sometimes, late at night, she sees Les Goodman walk outside and look up at the sky, “as if he were waiting for something.  As if . . . he were looking for something.”

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Les is flabbergasted.  “You all know me,” he says to his friends and neighbors.  “We’ve lived here for five years. . . . We aren’t any different from you, any different at all!”  But it’s no use.  They no longer trust him.

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Later, as night has fallen and Maple Street is still without power, the neighbors continue to watch Les.  Their suspicions aroused, they whisper about him.  “He always was an oddball,” one man explains to his wife.

But then they begin to argue among themselves.  Someone mentions that Steve Brand has a radio set his wife sometimes talks about.  But no one has ever seen it.  “Who do you talk to on that radio, Steve?” they want to know.

For the bulk of the episode, Steve has tried to be the voice of reason amid the ever-growing paranoia of the group.  Here, he erupts, “Let’s get it all out.  Let’s pick out every idiosyncrasy of every man, woman, and child on this whole street! . . . You’re all standing out here, all set to crucify somebody.  You’re all set to find a scapegoat!  You’re all desperate to point some kind of a finger at a neighbor!”

If his words have any effect on the group, they are lost by a figure approaching out of the darkness.  “It’s the monster!  It’s the monster!” the boy, Tommy, shouts.  One of the residents runs to his house, then rushes back with a shotgun.

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He shoots the approaching figure, and he falls to the street.  The throng runs up to him, and they discover that they’ve shot Pete Van Horn, the neighbor who had gone to check on the next block, to see if they had lost power, too.

More bickering ensues, more blame . . .

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And then, all hell breaks loose.  Lights flicker on in one house, and then another, and another.  Someone’s car starts on its own, then another car does the same thing.  Mass hysteria reigns, as neighbor turns against neighbor.  Stones are picked up, hurled.  Guns are retrieved from wall mounts, and fired.  Screams pierce the night . . .

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Now the camera pans up, and we see Maple Street from above, the neighbors running around madly, fighting, killing . . .

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. . . until we see two aliens high above the street–and we realize:  the boy was right.  It wasn’t a meteor.  Aliens have landed.  But not in the way he had thought.

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As they watch the Maple Street residents lose all control the aliens discuss the situation.

“Understand the procedure now?” one of them says.  “Just stop a few of their machines . . . throw them into darkness for a few hours and then sit back and watch the pattern. . . .  They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find–and it’s themselves.”

It’s true, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is a bit contrived, and the neighbors break into chaos and hysteria fairly quickly.  But the episode’s power and impact are not diminished by this.  It is a landmark Twilight Zone, and generally regarded as one of the series’ best.

Rod Serling concludes the episode with this voice-over:

“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout.  There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices–to be found only in the minds of men.  For the record, prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy.  And a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own–for the children, and the children yet unborn.  And the pity of it is–that these things cannot be confined to The Twilight Zone.”

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Rose (or a Jack) by Any Other Name . . .

What makes a story great?  What makes a movie, or a novel, unforgettable?  Nonstop action?  A fantastic and imaginative plot?  A surprise, twist ending?  Romance?  Incredible special effects, or descriptions of those effects, if in book form?  Certainly these elements can lend themselves to a great story.  And–especially for a short story or a short television episode–sometimes a clever plot or a shock ending is enough.  A short work such as “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson, for example, is memorable in large part because of its theme, its plot, and its impact as a story that tackles the issue of blind adherence to tradition, to doing things just because “that’s the way it’s always been done.”

But for a novel, an ongoing television series, or a movie–the one thing that is essential is character.  Without at least one highly developed character we can learn to love (or hate), any long story will fall a little flat.  It can still be entertaining, fun, a wonderful adventure.  But it won’t resonate the same way a story with effective characters will.  All the great films and novels have characters who reach us, touch us, and leave a lasting impression.

James Cameron understood this when he created Titanic.  Love it or hate it, Titanic was the highest grossing film of all-time before Avatar broke the record.  It won 11 Academy Awards.  Why?  What made it such a hit with audiences around the world?

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Certainly the subject matter was a winner.  Who isn’t fascinated and moved by the tragedy of the Titanic?  The real-life tale seems almost too contrived to be true.  “The unsinkable” ship sinking on its maiden voyage?  In a purely fictional context, audiences might not buy such a far-fetched idea.  But the Titanic has mesmerized people for a hundred years.  How did it happen?  What went wrong?  Why did the captain not change course when he knew there were icebergs in the great ship’s path?  The questions abound, and historians have puzzled over them and tried to solve them for decades.

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There have been many movies made on the RMS Titanic over the years.  With material like this, you can’t go wrong.  Right?  Not really.  While some of the films did fairly well–particularly the 1958 British adaptation, A Night to Remember (generally regarded by historians as the most accurate portrayal of the real-life disaster to date), based on the book of the same name by Walter Lord–none of them were major hits.   And some were forgettable from the moment they hit the screen.

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So–what was missing?  Cameron decided, correctly as it turned out–character.  A film like A Night to Remember was gripping, accurate, well acted.  But it didn’t give the audience any individual passenger they could truly get to know and care about.  The star of the movie, in effect, was the ship itself.  Cameron turned that around and created fictional characters to go along with the real-life personalities who were also on his ship.

He centers the movie around Rose and Jack, two fictional characters whose love story and torrid romance take center stage.

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Cameron realized that, as remarkable and captivating as the real story of the RMS Titanic is–a landmark film needs to bring things down to the level of an individual, or two individuals, who viewers can relate to, care about, root for, and invest in.  If we can see the grand disaster of the Titanic through these characters’ eyes, we can be transported more effectively onto the ship ourselves.  We can experience more profoundly what the passengers felt, their panic, their desperation, their all-too-frequent futile attempts to cling to life.  We can be, in essence, a virtual passenger in our own right.  By focusing so much on just two individuals, entering into their lives, their hopes, their fears and dreams, we are, ultimately if counter-intuitively, better able to see and feel the enormity of the disaster as a whole.

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It is my hope that The Eye-Dancers accomplishes something similar.  While the story is a sci-fi/fantasy adventure of parallel worlds and ghost girls and journeys through endless blue voids, it is, at its heart, also a story about four boys who must learn to confront and deal with their own insecurities and hang-ups while in the midst of extreme adversity.  And I hope readers will cheer them on, become frustrated with them at times, perhaps, but in the end care for them and root for them, and become more invested in the story and the fantasy because of them.

Call her Rose, or Sharon, or Rapunzel.  Call him Jack, or Steve, or Hezekiah.  The names don’t matter.

But the characters do.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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