Tor.com content by

Madeline Ashby

Fiction and Excerpts [3]
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Fiction and Excerpts [3]

Company Town

|| New Arcadia is a city-sized oil rig off the coast of the Canadian Maritimes, now owned by one very wealthy, powerful, byzantine family: Lynch Ltd. Hwa is of the few people in her community to forgo bio-engineered enhancements, but her expertise in the arts of self-defense and her record as a fighter mean that her services are yet in high demand. When the youngest Lynch needs training and protection, the family turns to Hwa. But can even she protect against increasingly intense death threats seemingly coming from another timeline?

iD (Excerpt)

|| Javier is a self-replicating humanoid on a journey of redemption. Javier's quest takes him from Amy's island, where his actions have devastating consequences for his friend, toward Mecha where he will find either salvation… or death.

What Are the Best and Worst Aspects of Cyberpunk? Authors Weigh In On Writing—and Reading—the Future

Cyberpunk. It’s about cybernetics, neuroscience, nanotech, and transhumanism—and much more than that. The upcoming anthology from Hex Publishers, Cyber World, looks at how the technological changes we all face have inspired new stories to address our fears, hopes, dreams, and desires. All this as Homo sapiens evolves—or not—into its next incarnation.

Some of the most talented science fiction writers of today contributed to Cyber World, which presents diverse tales of humanity’s tomorrow. Today six of those authors answer the question “What are the best and worst aspects of cyberpunk, as either a reader or a writer?” Read their answers and tell us your own thoughts in the comments!

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Series: Cyberpunk Week on Tor.com

Five Books Set In Company Towns

A company town is a planned community in which practically all stores and housing are owned by the one company that also is a primary (or sometimes only) employer for its residents, common (for instance) in remote areas of the U.S. after the industrial revolution, particularly in industries such as coal mining and lumber production. Often designed as “morally uplifting” but isolated utopias for their workers, company towns are settings rife for speculative fiction—from an out-of-town P.I. caught in a conspiracy to a banker dodging terrorist plots, author Madeline Ashby shares five of her favorite fictional company towns…

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Series: Five Books About…

Training My Body to Write Company Town

I did not expect to be the kind of person who wakes up early for bootcamp. And really, I’m not that kind of person at all. Most mornings, the asthmatic bookworm in me riots in protest of my crawling out of bed and pulling on my leggings. She is my inner child and the most athletic thing she ever did was theater camp. She remains deeply suspicious of physical activity; she remembers asthma attacks, migraines, coughing so hard she threw up. She remembers being picked last for every team—except for dodgeball, because she was too short to be hit reliably and remained standing at the end of most rounds. “This wasn’t supposed to happen,” she says. “Adulthood wasn’t supposed to be like this. Why do we still have to go to gym?!”

[Because being an adult means choosing some of the pain that you’re in.]

Company Town

New Arcadia is a city-sized oil rig off the coast of the Canadian Maritimes, now owned by one very wealthy, powerful, byzantine family: Lynch Ltd. Hwa is of the few people in her community to forgo bio-engineered enhancements, but her expertise in the arts of self-defense and her record as a fighter mean that her services are yet in high demand. When the youngest Lynch needs training and protection, the family turns to Hwa. But can even she protect against increasingly intense death threats seemingly coming from another timeline?

Meanwhile, a series of interconnected murders threatens the city’s stability and heightens the unease of a rig turning over. All signs point to a nearly invisible serial killer, but all of the murders seem to lead right back to Hwa’s front door. Company Town has never been the safest place to be—but now, the danger is personal.

A brilliant, twisted mystery, Madeline Ashby’s Company Town is available May 17th from Tor Books.

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iD (Excerpt)

Take a peek at Book II of Madeline Ashby’s Machine Dynasty, iD, coming out from Angry Robot Books on July 4:

Javier is a self-replicating humanoid on a journey of redemption.

Javier’s quest takes him from Amy’s island, where his actions have devastating consequences for his friend, toward Mecha where he will find either salvation… or death.

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Who is Dead? The Tense Mystery of Horror Ghost Anime Another

Another is a horror anime based on Yukito Ayatsuji’s 2009 novel of the same name. It’s currently streaming at Crunchyroll, and at only twelve episodes it’s the perfect series to get you in the Halloween spirit. It’s smart, lovely, and genuinely scary, with an unexpected puzzle at its heart that helps the series merit multiple viewings. You’ll want to watch this with the lights off, and then you’ll want to turn them all on again so you can make a map of all the characters – the living, the dead, and the ones you’re not so sure about.

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Series: Ghost Week on Tor.com

vN (Excerpt)

After our review, we know you’d like a closer look at Madeline Ashby’s debut novel, vN, and you’re in luck! Check it out:

Amy Peterson is a self-replicating humanoid robot known as a VonNeumann.

For the past five years, she has been grown slowly as part of a mixed organic/synthetic family. She knows very little about her android mother’s past, so when her grandmother arrives and attacks her mother, Amy wastes no time: she eats her alive.

Now she carries her malfunctioning granny as a partition on her memory drive, and she’s learning impossible things about her clade’s history – like the fact that she alone can kill humans without failsafing…

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Cowboy Bebop Re-watch: “Black Dog Serenade”

“Black Dog Serenade” is an episode of the series that has a good example of what my workshop calls “The Refrigerator Door Effect.” (Not to be confused with other all-too-common refrigerator issues.) The Refrigerator Door Effect is what happens when someone enjoys a story so thoroughly that the plotholes and inconsistencies don’t occur to her until she has her hand on the refrigerator door to fetch herself a celebratory beer. She stands there remembering the story, and realizes: that whole thing made no sense at all.

All narrative is, on some level, sleight of hand. You can prolong the suspension of an audience’s disbelief by burying flaws in the fundamental premise under compelling emotional or aesthetic details. Some storytellers are better at this than others: George Lucas is terrible at it, but Francise Ford Coppola is pretty good. Consider The Godfather: the story is all about the ascension of Michael Corleone to the role of Don, so his older brothers Sonny and Fredo must be removed from the equation. Fredo is happy in Nevada, so he gets de-cluttered West. But Sonny plans to take their father’s place. So to get rid of him, Puzo (and later, Coppola) took advantage of his tragic flaw, impulsiveness, and had the Corleones’ enemies lure Sonny out to a tollbooth by beating up his sister. They know he’ll probably come rescue her, because he’s done it before. And Coppola knows that the audience will be so busy worrying about Connie, rooting for Sonny, and then reeling at the violence of his death, that they won’t bother to ask: What if Connie never called Sonny?

Connie doesn’t actually want to get her husband Carlo, who beats her, in trouble. Like many victims she blames herself for the abuse, and after Sonny retaliates once, she begs him not to do so again. So why would she even make the call? And why would anyone build such an important plan on that one fragile detail? But the first few times I watched the film, I never bothered to ask. I was too wrapped up in what an awful bastard Carlo was, and how I really hoped Sonny would waste him, and how disappointing it was that Carlo got to live for ninety more minutes.

“Black Dog Serenade” pulls this same maneuver. As a human story, it’s great. But as a logical narrative, it falls apart. And that’s fine, because the plot for this episode isn’t as important as how the episode points toward one of the central themes of the series as a whole: the power of the Syndicate, and the inability of solitary individuals to fight against it.

The episode revolves around an uprising at a prisoner transport vessel that is locked inside the Gate system. On board is Udai Taxim, a Syndicate assassin that Jet believes is responsible for the loss of his left arm. Years ago when he worked for the ISSP, he and his partner, Fad, tracked Taxim to a back alley on Ganymede to arrest him, and Jet wound up with a bunch of bullets in his left arm. He lost it, and his mechanized limb is serviceable, but not terribly sensitive. After the uprising, Fad contacts Jet and asks him to join him on a quest to neutralize Taxim. At first, Jet refuses. Then he realizes he needs to get over the loss of his arm, and he thinks he can do it by tracking down Taxim for a re-match. He succeeds, but discovers more about his old partner than he ever wanted to know. And in the end, the new knowledge is just as painful as the new arm.

“Don’t you feel that?” Faye asks early in the episode, as she watches a cigarette burn down toward his fingers. The ensuing conversation happens on two levels: Faye pesters him to repair the ship, then his arm, when what Jet really needs to repair is himself. The same could be said of the series’ other characters, which is another reason the conversation works. It also serves as a nice contrast to the stilted conversation Jet has with his former partner. Faye is snappish, whiny, and passive-aggressive, but she clearly wants what’s best for Jet. The same cannot be said for Fad.

Just as all the characters in the series have some form of physical damage (Spike’s eye, Jet’s arm, Faye’s memory loss), they also have chapters in their lives that they must close in order to heal fully. Their ability to do so forms the emotional arc of the series, and it really begins taking shape after the “Jupiter Jazz” episodes. Jet has already let go of his old flame, Lisa, but he has yet to shake off the hold his old job has on him. He still acts like a cop, and still relishes any opportunity to communicate with his old ISSP contacts. Re-watching this episode, it finally clicked for me that what Jet also misses is having a partner. Spike and Faye just don’t cut it. They’re so wrapped up in their own problems that Jet asks Ed to water the bonsai if he doesn’t come back from his trip with Fad to the prisoner transport ship.

The prisoner transport ship is its own little story. By itself, it’s pretty good. (Prison riot! IN SPAAAAAACE!) The prisoners are all pretty smart guys who are on the ball, and the cleverest of them band together to pilot the ship, repel threats, and figure out what to do next. They don’t waste time figuring out who’s on top, or whether to ask for ransom, any other cliches. They just want to hold onto the ship because it has a lot of guns and it can get them where they want to go. It’s pretty basic, and it makes logical sense.

But the plot itself doesn’t, because Udai Taxim never shot Jet all those years ago. He’s not responsible for Jet’s missing arm. Jet’s old partner is. Taxim tells him as much as they’re in the midst of a stand-off.

Pop quiz, space cowboys! You once conspired with an organized crime syndicate to betray your partner, and he lost his arm. One of your fellow conspirators breaks free from prison. Do you:

a) Ignore him, and hope he goes away

b) Talk to the syndicate about it, and hope they deal with him

c) Deal with him yourself, and offer him something in exchange for his silence if you fail to kill him

d) Call your old partner (the one with the missing arm) for the first time in three years, tell him about the escape, and insist that the two of you find your former conspirator, and hope that you kill him before he can say anything to your old partner

Granted, Fad claims that infiltrating the transport is a two-man job. But he’s a corrupt ISSP cop. He’s on the take. He has the money to hire somebody to help. In fact, had he asked the Syndicate for assistance, they probably would have given it to him. As we see in the conversation between Taxim and the Syndicate, their relationship is no more. Taxim is a stone in their shoe, and Fad knows it. He could have eliminated the now-vulnerable Taxim at his leisure without any fear of reprisal. So why did he need Jet? Why did it have to be him? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to distract Jet entirely, by using his position in the ISSP to set up a fake bounty somewhere far from Ganymede? He could just withdraw the bounty a couple of days later, once he was sure the Bebop had cleared the Gate. Surely he can check up on entry/exit records. So how hard would it have been to ask the Syndicate for extra resources, throw Jet off the scent, and then quickly deal with Taxim? Sure, it’s a more complicated process, but it’s no more difficult than betraying Jet was. And it’s a hell of a lot better than being dead.

The answer is that the plot doesn’t have to make any sense. It’s the theme that’s important. Much like “Waltz for Venus,” this episode is all about the Syndicate, how ruthless and powerful it is, and how nobody who goes up against it can ever succeed. Fad sums it up perfectly: “The people who go against the Syndicate lose, Jet. They lose big. Either they give up like you did, or they die young.”

Cowboy Bebop is all about the past catching up with you. It might be a bad relationship, or an old injury, or major debts, but sooner or later all of the characters have to deal with the trauma that damaged them, so they can repair themselves. Jet’s mechanical arm is a perfect metaphor for this theme, and as with Spike, his trauma is related to the Syndicates. The Syndicates, be they Red Dragon or White Tiger or what have you, have an almost infinite reach. You can run, but you can’t hide. In fact, the series seems to suggest that the only way to survive is to go back and deal with the problem on your own terms, rather than waiting for it to sneak up on you (like Spike, running from Vicious and giving Vicious more time to establish power, gather resources, and craft a plan for destroying him). But in between fleeing that trauma and realizing that truth, there’s a lot of fighting against the pull of the past. It’s the stuff of great literature and drama. It’s so true on a human level that F. Scott Fitzgerald already described it in The Great Gatsby:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

 


Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and foresight consultant. Her debut novel, vN will be available this summer from Angry Robot Books.

The Only Christmas Movie Not Airing This Month

Tokyo Godfathers (2003) is in many ways the perfect Christmas film. It’s an antidote to both the saccharine holiday specials each network feels compelled to churn out this time of year, and the holiday “comedy” films about finding or delivering the right toys to the right kids at the right time. It takes place on Christmas Eve, but it is not, strictly speaking, about Christmas. It’s about three homeless people finding an abandoned baby. But it’s really about the families we lose, the families we choose, the mistakes we make and the things we say, and the back alleys we wander through on the long road to redemption.

The late Satoshi Kon is best known for evoking feelings of fear and trepidation in pieces like Perfect Blue, Paranoia Agent, and Paprika, but watching Tokyo Godfathers you learn that it’s not dread he understood best, but the human heart itself. It helps that Kon was assisted in writing this screenplay by none other than Keiko Nobumoto, who also scripted Cowboy Bebop and Wolf’s Rain. Both those series are about chosen families facing impossible odds and unforgiving societies, and both examine personal tragedy with an unflinching gaze.  That same approach is what makes Tokyo Godfathers so rewarding to watch.

The film centres on four homeless people: Gin, an alcoholic who claims his family is dead; Hana, a former host club worker; Miyuki, a runaway, and Kiyoko, the baby they find abandoned in a pile of garbage. The three of them are prickly people scarred by very deep wounds, and as such are often disappointed in themselves and each other. They fight, they cry, they laugh, they get drunk and try to avoid being kicked to death by random teenagers. They are, in short, human beings, and we learn why each of them can’t go home as they spend Christmas finding a home for the baby.

That process takes them to the lowest places in Tokyo, to yakuza weddings and crowded kitchens, to bars and hospitals and convenience stores. For as much as this film is about families, it is also about cities. If you enjoy films like L.A. Story, Manhattan, or Paris, Je T’aime,  or if you’ve ever enjoyed the way that big cities can sometimes feel like small towns, this is the film for you. It highlights the fact that what makes a city wonderful is not always the architecture or the services, but the connections between its inhabitants.

Those connections can at times feel contrived. The film walks a fine line between everyday whimsy and Dickensian coincidence. Occasionally, it stumbles. It relies heavily on luck, but never implies any sort of supernatural or divine blessing. Rather, it explores the miracles of connection and redemption, of what happens when the people who have always done the wrong thing at the wrong time start doing the right thing at the right time. It may be about a child of mysterious parentage found by three wizened people in the urban equivalent of a manger, but there is no guiding star, here, no sign or revelation. The revelations in this story are intimate, but wondrous: the discovery of family, of possibility, of truth, of hope, of home.

Home is where we make it. Too often at this time of year, we focus on what that home should look like, who should be there, how we should feel when we return there or welcome others. We miss what is there, and what we do have. Tokyo Godfathers is about having nothing at Christmas, and finding that everything you needed was right there all along, like a gift waiting to be opened.

 


Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and foresight consultant living in Toronto. Her debut novel, vN, will be available in August from Angry Robot Books.

Why the Akira Adaptation is a Big Deal

I watched Akira (1988) for the first time at an LAN party at a friend’s house, sometime around the turn of the century. Then as now, I was a terrible shot and more concerned with cels than polygons, so I stretched out in front of the household’s last tube TV, and watched a copy of Katsuhiro Otomo’s film taped from cable. It ghosted across the screen like the Ring video, blurry and beige and riddled with tracking errors. A year or two later, my dad rented it on DVD. He wanted to see it, and I wanted to see a good print.

[I watched it for the next three days.]

Manufactured Horrorscapes

I grew up near Twin Peaks. Actually, I grew up in a suburb of Seattle. But it was closer to Twin Peaks (better known as Snoqualmie Falls, WA) than Seattle. And my suburb, with its looming trees and truck-mounted gun racks, was a lot scarier than the big city. In elementary school, we thought the old man who tended barrel fires outside his modular home killed children. Knowing that somewhere out there, the Green River Killer was still active likely informed that suspicion. Deep down, we all knew that we could wind up like Laura Palmer: violated, dead, wrapped in plastic. The fact that an entire generation of middle class American parents had fled concrete jungles for engineered greenbelts meant nothing. In the suburbs, no one can hear you scream.

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These Kids Aren’t All Right

“There’s nothing as pure and cruel as a child.” – Jet Black, Cowboy Bebop, “Pierrot Le Fou.”

In the rampaging horde of vampires, werewolves, zombies, fae, ghosts, geists, creatures and crawlers that daily swarm our pages and screens, it’s easy to forget the ankle-biters. After all, the grown-up versions are so much sexier and more exciting. But even Grendel was somebody’s baby, once. Won’t somebody please think of the children?

[Creepy kids]

Series: Monster Mash on Tor.com

All About Miku

For a while now, I’ve been trying to understand what bothers me so much about Hatsune Miku. She’s a virtual idol not unlike Rei Toei in Idoru, who I have no trouble with. She’s a program developed by Crypton Future Media with a Yamaha Vocaloid 2 sound rendering engine. She’s a fictional persona with millions of fans. Her projected performances regularly sell out stadiums across Asia. Everyone loves her. Everyone but me.

Part of my dislike might be hipster-eque exhaustion. Miku-chan is everywhere. In 2009, CLAMP (the manga supergroup behind Chobits and xxxHolic, among others) illustrated a music video set to one of her songs. Recently, she appeared in an American ad campaign for the Toyota Corolla. She was on the cover of Clash magazine. Then, pro makeup artist and Lancôme video representative Michelle Phan produced a cosplay tutorial for her. Now she has her own freeware animation program, that allows the user to produce music videos and short films featuring her image complete with 3D rendering, motion capture (via the Kinect), and the ability to design new models and share them with fellow fans.

None of these things are bad. In fact, I get really excited when I contemplate the possibilities of the technologies that bring Miku-chan to life: Vocaloid mixing, projection, motion capture, communal creation in real time… five years ago when Crypton was just releasing Miku to market, these things were science fiction. Now they’re real… and they’re a bit boring. The most innovative use of Miku’s image comes not from any of the companies that own her license or developed her technologies, but from the fans who love her best. She belongs to them, now, and that’s the way it should be. But it’s also the reason I find her so tiresome. Miku is to Vocaloid otaku what statues of the Buddha are to yoga yuppies: so predictably ubiquitous that their image is rendered meaningless. Now that she belongs to everyone, Miku has no identity of her own. This happens to all celebrities, but Miku never had an identity to start with.

The most popular characters of any meta-text have some sort of backstory. It might be confused or retconned, but it can usually be explained in about two sentences in a way that sheds light on the character’s core personality. Batman. James Bond. The Doctor. Sailor Moon. Buffy Summers. You can encounter these characters in a variety of different media and still understand who they are on a basic level, because their backstories make narrative and emotional sense. In fact, their baggage is part of what makes them fun, as James Paul Gee notes about being a good Snake.

Miku has no such backstory. She is whatever the user makes her out to be. In a way, she’s another example of Stephenie Meyers’ logic regarding Twilight protagonist Bella Swan: a character whose identifying details were left strategically blank “so that the reader could more easily step into her shoes.” But Meyer was discussing physical appearance, and in Miku’s case it’s the persona that remains blank. As of 2010, the user can assign her one of six voices ranging from childish to mature, but aside from those voices and her look, there’s not much else to make Miku distinctively Miku. Her very emptiness is the draw.

That emptiness is part of a long cultural tradition. As Christopher Bolton notes in his essay “From Wooden Cyborgs to Celluloid Souls: Mechanical Bodies in Anime and Japanese Puppet Theater,” (Positions, Winter 2002) robotic or cyberized anime and video game characters are the latest expression of Japan’s fascination with puppetry. Some of Japan’s greatest stories started out as puppet epics, and the puppeteer’s skill was measured in his ability to enshrine humanity in an artificial body. This animation-by-inhabitation of the puppet was (and remains) aesthetically challenging and beautiful. The echo of this tradition lives on in programs like MikuMikuDance, in which the user’s body becomes the puppeteer.

Anime, manga, and video games are full of stories about this very phenomenon. It’s the principle behind piloting a giant robot like a Gundam or Evangelion. But the closest comparison is the relationship between failed singer Myung Fang Lone and virtual idol Sharon Apple, in Macross Plus. The story is one of the few anime to explore puppeteering and piloting at the same time. In it, two pilots compete for Myung’s heart while testing a new interface for a fighter jet that is controlled directly by brain waves. Meanwhile, Myung is slowly losing control of Sharon. Myung’s brain waves control Sharon’s performances, with her emotions providing the secret ingredient that transforms Sharon from Uncanny Valley resident to beloved celebrity. But because Myung has spent the past ten years suppressing her emotions, Sharon’s performances are growing increasingly unpredictable and the idol appears to be acquiring sentience and agency. Myung won’t acknowledge her true desires, so Sharon acts on them.

I’m not the first to make the comparison between Sharon and Miku. But what strikes me about these two idols is that Sharon has a story, whereas Miku does not. Miku is a franchise, while Sharon is a character. Moreover, Sharon’s story is about developing subjectivity, and becoming a powerful agent in one’s own life. Just as Sharon becomes more “real,” so does Myung. Sharon’s rebellion is the catalyst that forces Myung to accept herself as a woman complete with a dark side, because Sharon has taken Myung’s desires and run with them. By contrast, Miku reflects desire but never acts on it. She has no built-in response system. She can’t even do a basic affinity-based suggestion compiled from your clickthrough data, like Google or Amazon or Netfix. All Miku can do is perform.

So, what’s my problem with Miku? Well, Asuka Langley Soryu explains it best:

She’s an unthinking emotionless puppet. And until she has her Ayanami moment — until she proves to us that she’s more than just a doll — she won’t have my fandom.


Madeline Ashby just completed her second Master’s. Her first was on anime, cyborg theory, and fan culture. Her debut novel, vN, will be available next summer from Angry Robot books.

A Moral Argument for Hard Science Fiction

The spring and summer of 2011 seem to have been dominated by uprisings of all sorts, and governments who appeared to be deeply confused about how the technology enabling them works. From the response to Wikileaks to the Arab Spring to the U.K. riots to the shutdown of mobile phone service in certain San Franscisco transit stations, the authoritarian response to civic protest is little more than hapless, n00bish button-mashing. Who do I blame for these FAILs? Not the button-mashers. Me, I blame Hackers.

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Noir Films Perfected: The Third Man

The Third Man is director Carol Reed’s 1949 noir starring (among others) Joseph Cotten, and is adapted from Graham Greene’s novella of the same name. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s about a pulp writer. He’s named Holly Martin and visits Vienna after the second World War, and discovers that neither the city (split between the English, the French, the Russians, and the Americans) nor his friend Harry Lime (who offered him a job in Vienna before dying in a hit-and-run) are what they seem. Spoilers ahead!

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Series: Noir Week on Tor.com