The Pinnacle of Flatness

Maybe it’s just me, but everything is starting to look the same.

Not just look, but sound and feel the same as well.

Kind of weird lament from the guy who just warned against excessive individualism, but hear me out.

This thought struck me as I was driving with the family last weekend, and my wife and I got to talking about what kind of car we might buy next. Looking around the highway, seeing the vehicles on the road, and comparing them to what we already had, I shrugged my shoulders and thought, “What’s the difference?”

I know what you car-types are thinking now: There are huge differences in engines and transmissions and overall quality and so on. But I’m talking from a design and aesthetics perspective, because these things do matter.

Extrapolate this line of thinking to cities and towns the world over. I’m sure you’ve noticed that Toronto looks like London looks like Los Angeles looks like Berlin, and so on. Not identical, but close enough. Modern architecture is but one way in which ideas of design seem to be converting on something universal…and kind of beige.

And then there’s urban sprawl and the explosion of squat, concrete strip malls, fast-food joints and gas stations, and big box stores everywhere. It seems like that’s all some towns are.

And this, of course, goes for the arts as well. Movies all feel the same, screenwriting formulae aside. Music, books, television shows, education, pop culture…the list goes on.

Is this just where things always lead? Is there an “ultimate design” that we as human beings have finally reached? Or is it the natural consequence of a society that embraces Adam Smith’s “capitalism” while rejecting the “guided by moral principles” part of the equation?

In other words, is function driving this sameness, or is commerce? Or is something else? Continue reading “The Pinnacle of Flatness”

Book Review: The Ophian Rising (Soul Cycle Book IV) by Brian Niemeier

The Ophian Rising, Soul Cycle Book IV by Brian Niemeier

With a heavy heart, I finished reading The Ophian Rising, the fourth and final book in Brian Niemeier‘s Soul Cycle. And thus closes one of the most interesting, unique, satisfying, and fun book series I have read in a long time.

In my review of the first book, Nethereal, I described it as such:

Take the good parts of Dune and Star Wars, mix them together with a heaping dollop of Dante, a dash of high fantasy, and a whole lot of horror, and you’re beginning to almost approach Brian Niemeier‘s self-published Nethereal, book one of his three-part Soul Cycle series.

Is it sci-fi? Is it science-fantasy?

Who cares? It’s fun.

This description works across the entire series.

I refuse to get into spoiler territory here, as interested readers need to experience the Soul Cycle for themselves. What I’d like to do instead is explain why this series works so well, and encourage you to read it for yourself.

All I’ll say about The Ophian Rising is that:

  1. Brian’s writing, good to start with, gets better and better with each book.
  2. The Soul Cycle needs to be read from front-to-back in order to pick up on everything Brian has subtly wove into it. I plan on doing a re-read of the whole series soon.
  3. Brian knows how to tell a lean story that’s still satisfying (more on this later).

And here is my only complaint about The Ophian Rising: I wish that it, and the series itself, was longer. That’s right: Brian has left me wanting more. Thankfully, I know he has no plan to stop writing anything anytime soon.

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Why You Should Read The Soul Cycle

Regular readers know that I’ve written about Brian before. He edited the manuscript for my own novel, The Rust Man, and writes about many topics on his own blog that I’ve used as springboards for further discussion here.

I’m going to distill a few of Brian’s biggest points for you, and then explain why, if these sound good to you, you should read his work.

  • The era of the doorstop novel is over.
  • Readers want something they can pick up that will grip them from the start and keep them reading–the key word here is immediacy.
  • Favor clear writing over clever writing.
  • People crave heroes that are actually heroic–good and evil matter!
  • Books are competing with TV, social media, movies, video games, and streaming video.
  • Keep your politics out of your writing–shoehorning contemporary issues into your fiction is a recipe for disaster, or at least for severely limiting your audience.
  • The era of big publishing is over. Indies are where it’s at.
  • Indie does not equal low quality. Not anymore.
  • And finally: If it has nothing to do with your story, get rid of it.

I can safely say that The Soul Cycle series embodies all of these principles. Continue reading “Book Review: The Ophian Rising (Soul Cycle Book IV) by Brian Niemeier”

Overcoming Individualism

Hi. I’m Alex, and I’m a recovering individualist.

This isn’t tantamount to “becoming a radical collectivist”–I feel like I have to say this for the either/or crowd. Anyway, the point is that it’s difficult to get a herd of individualists to get things done.

Yes, I oppose oppressive state control. Yes, I believe everyone should be free to work towards achieving their goals. But what I’ve had to overcome is self-reliance at the expense of taking a stand or associating with anyone or anything, ever.

It’s romantic to be the “Lone man who knows the TRUTH defying the masses!” But the chances of that guy getting anything practical done himself are slim to none, and his chances of getting squashed by the collectivist state he decries are high.

This is why history has so few successful rebellions of one. Even Jesus had friends.

Brian Niemeier sums it up nicely:

It’s been said before, and it bears saying again: Conservatives’ main weakness is their critical lack of solidarity. It comes from the nasty individualist streak in their capitalist and Liberal influences.

You see how this also relates to organized religion and the knee-jerk reaction many have to it. “Don’t tell me what to do!” can quickly become “I already have all the answers and don’t need help, and. . .”–here’s the damning part–“. . . I won’t risk my neck for anyone else.”

It’s like centrism, really, the pose of being “above it all“: “Don’t associate me with THOSE people, even though I secretly agree with them.”

In order to make any kind of impact, it really takes teamwork. Again, for the binary thinkers, this isn’t the same as saying “Become a communist!” It’s saying don’t be hostile to teams or communities of the like-minded.

As with the absence of great moderates in history, you’ll find few successful individuals who weren’t able to mobilize a serious following through techniques that hardcore individualists claim to hate.

I’m talking rhetoric, imagery, focusing on shared identities and characteristics–in short, the things that make us similar as opposed to the things that make us different.

If “Our differences are what make us stronger,” than Yugoslavia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire would still be things, there never would’ve been trouble between England and Ireland, and racial harmony would have been prevalent in the United States since it’s inception.

Let’s tie this back to organized religion for a second. How presumptuous to believe one knows everything, as though the work of church Fathers never existed. We don’t do the same with science, so we? Or with the arts?

Actually, we do with the arts, which is a problem. But I digress. Continue reading “Overcoming Individualism”

Get Obsessed and Stay Obsessed

The only way to ever get anything done, and done well, is to have ruthless focus.

That’s the truth. If you disagree, you’re wrong.

I’ll use Leonardo da Vinci as an example. The man was a genius, sure, but he seemed too scattershot in his doings to really make that much of a lasting impact in any one field. He’s know for doing a lot of things really well, but he didn’t paint and sculpt like Michelangelo or compose like Beethoven.

Speaking of Beethoven, the man lived music. That’s all he did. Even when deaf, he still composed. Talk about obsession.

It’s not just the arts. Look at what Arnold Schwarzenegger did with his body. Look at what Henry Ford did regarding automobiles. Look at what Bruce Lee did with marital arts.

The problem as I see it is this: We live in a society that discourages the pursuit of excellence by turning leisure for leisure’s sake into a worthy goal in and of itself.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with enjoying a movie or a drink or a trip to Vegas or video games of whatever. I argue that there is something wrong with filling every angstrom of free time with entertainment.

There’s not much culture other than pop culture, true. And it’s good to get out of reality from time to time. But it’s more worthy to create something, even if nobody else will see it.

Keeping minds active and inspired is one of the greatest things one human being can accomplish for another.

Continue reading “Get Obsessed and Stay Obsessed”

Learn Or Die: Criticism, Setbacks, and Process

If you’re not learning, you’re dying. If you’re not willing to seek out and take criticism, you’re not learning.

And if you take criticism personally, you’ll never learn.

It’s a lesson I wish I learned fifteen years ago. Who knows where I would be? Instead I let my ego get in the way, imagining that I already knew everything, and thereby stagnating. Hey, at least I felt good about myself!

This lesson hit home when I got edits back from Brian Niemeier on one of my many works in progress, The Rust Man.

Brian, an author I greatly admire, was brutally honest, frank, and helpful. You can tell he wants to help.

Anyway, after reading his edits and his notes, I’m going back to the drawing board on the book. The funny thing is that I stared writing The Rust Man (name subject to change) before I started getting into the PulpRev and it’s ethos.

What ethos? How about clarity over cleverness and short and punchy beats “epic” and bloated. A lot of his suggestions, I’d say 85% or so, are things I was planning on doing anyway as I thought about the book in the months since I wrote it, edited it myself, and sent it to him. My goal is getting it down to 450 or so pages from its current 850.

This also ties into process, which we’ll get to later.

See, I was weaned on epic fantasy, brick-sized tomes by authors like Robert Jordan, Tad Williams (a highly underrated author) and George R. R. Martin. Sure I loved Tolkien and Lewis and even enjoyed Lloyd Alexander, but Big was where it was at. More = better.

But you know something? People generally aren’t buying doorstop-sized books, especially on Kindles and other devices, and especially not in fantasy and sci-fi. And if you want to sell books and build an audience, you do have to give them what they want. There is no shame in this. Continue reading “Learn Or Die: Criticism, Setbacks, and Process”

When the Novelty is Gone: Triggering for Triggering’s Sake

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I understand, appreciate, and even applaud the instinct to stick it to the man. There’s so much sanctimonious, stifling, joyless politically correct nonsense around today that it deserves a good poke in the eye. Several, actually. If the brittle and clearly disturbed champions of the new “decency” are so mentally fragile that they can be broken by a damn politician, then they deserve all of the triggering they get.

It would be fine if people like this weren’t telling the rest of us how to live our lives all the time. But they do. And that’s what I object to.

That said, doing something for the sole purpose of pissing off the “right” people is just dumb. Dumb and counterproductive.

It reduces any actual movement, as it were, to a parody. Mere trollingA novelty act.

Spiteful posturing is the province of adolescents. It’s similar to the worst of the hippies back in the 60s, who wanted to tear everything down because they didn’t want to be “square,” which really meant (a) not getting drafted (which I can understand), (b) not wanting to work, and (c) “free love.”

Now, there’s a similar desire to say and do things just to send the morality crusaders into an admittedly amusing tizzy of rage.

But beyond that?

If there’s nothing underneath the controversy, it makes you look unserious. And being unserious is actually serious business.

If there’s no intellectual heft behind your “triggering,” no steak beneath the sizzle, it becomes a gag, and a gag only works once. Continue reading “When the Novelty is Gone: Triggering for Triggering’s Sake”

Movie Review: Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017)

Movie poster for Star Wars: The Last Jedi movie poster

I was going to write more about The Last Jedi. A lot more. I was going to get into the plot points and offer various, in-depth critiques.

But screw it.

I will give this movie the level of effort and care that it showed to the Star Wars franchise. Forget the original movies, The Last Jedi even manages to piss all over the previous installment, The Force Awakens.

For the record, I liked The Force Awakens, especially after some re-watches with my son. I think it’s a good movie that’s a few tweaks from being a great movie. J.J. Abrams at least understood what Star Wars was about: heroic characters, diabolical villains, space battles, lightsaber duels, and yes, moral conflict. Yes, there were some sops to Current Year; but it didn’t seem fully converged.

Or maybe I’m just not as attuned to that kind of stuff as others. I don’t know. But while The Force Awakens might have been a bit of a re-tread, but it did what it had to do for the new trilogy of films. It served up a nice fat one right over the plate for Rian Wilson and the rest of The Last Jedi‘s crew to knock out of the park.

And they whiffed. Spectacularly. As though intentionally. While flipping off the audience.

Continue reading “Movie Review: Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017)”