Sunday, February 3, 2019

Hollywood In Toto Interview: Dystopian Writing For the Modern World

Last week I had the privilege of being interviewed by Paul Hair, a contributor to Hollywood In Toto website. Our discussion touched on the continuing appeal of dystopian stories, and how some of the themes in my writing differ from the common offerings of the genre.

HiT: How long did you live in the U.S.S.R. and when did you immigrate to the U.S.?
Marina Fontaine: I was born and grew up in the former Soviet Union. My family waited for 10 years to be allowed to leave the country, and I was 19 when it finally happened in 1987. It wasn’t easy to adjust to the new country, culture and language as an adult, but I am glad it happened this way.
I can truly appreciate what it means to be free since I have experienced the alternative first hand. It
the product book cover fontaine
also allows me to insert little details into my writing that might sound far-fetched, but come directly from my experience. HiT: Reviewers of “The Product” (Superversive Press, 2016) say there are similarities with George Orwell’s “1984.” But they also mention that it’s hopeful. Why did you make it hopeful when that’s not necessarily common with dystopian works?
Fontaine: After publishing my first novel, “Chasing Freedom,” which is set in the near-future United States and was meant to be grounded in the reality of this country, I decided to have a more traditional dystopian setting for my next project.
The society in “The Product” is further gone on the road to totalitarian rule, and more importantly, the population as a whole has no internalized understanding of the concepts of privacy, traditional family or even basic honor and empathy that we all take for granted.

Read the rest of the interview here. And when you're done, please explore the rest of the site for more author interviews, movie reviews and current cultural commentary. Enjoy!


Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Book Review: Knight Training by Jon Del Arroz

Set in the world of For Steam and Country, this novella follows one of the original novel's more likable side characters, James Gentry, as he embarks on his quest to become a Knight. The story is fairly self-contained, so you can read this offering as an introduction to the world if you are hesitant to commit to the full-size novel.

This is most definitely YA, the old-fashioned kind, concerned with coming of age, first love and a youngster trying to prove his worth in the company of experienced and respected men. The love--or rather affection that might blossom into love--is sweet and innocent. The danger and violence,  while heave on the adrenaline rush, are not graphic. Most importantly, this story really is a journey, clearly one of many to come. James is a novice, and so, while brave and clever and quite capable, he is by no means infallible, and not invariably successful. The reader gets to witness the growth, the learning, the failures and triumphs along the way, unsure which part of the mission would succeed or fail and even who would make it through. While this used to be the standard arc of YA adventures, I was reflecting how rare such tales have become. For this alone, the author deserves credit.

The pacing is fast, pausing only occasionally to give us the needed insight into the world or the character's backstory and motivations, creating a fine balance between action and time to appreciate the bigger picture. The characters are as well developed as one might expect in a shorter offering--enough to know their main qualities and to keep them straight, but also leaving us with a desire to know more. The world is only described in relation to the main plot and James' backstory. You really need to read the other Rislandia novels to get the full picture, but it's not needed here. The idea of chasing down a traitor is fairly universal, so not much in the way of explanation is required.

The ending provides enough closure to the plot, but there are definitely many sequel possibilities, and the novella is already listed as part of a series, with the next entry available for sale as of last week.

Highly recommended to anyone curious about steampunk, or in search of a light, fun YA novel, and can be read as a stand-alone or in parallel read to the main Rislandia series.

Purchase Knight Training on Amazon

Monday, October 8, 2018

Kilt Blowing: A Play in Three Parts

While attending DragonCon this year, I decided to check out a kilt blowing event. Being, well, myself, about half way through I realized this topic would be great blogging fodder. Thus, here goes my semi-serious attempt to talk about something that's pretty impossible to even mention without giggling.

Kilt blowing as done at DragonCon is a performance art, and it tells quite a story.

Introduction: The Origin.

Some years ago, a mischievous young woman decided to investigate if the T-Shit slogan "If I wore anything under my kilt, it would be a skirt!" was an accurate representation of reality. So she did what every self-respecting social scientist does. She purchased a hand-held blower, approached a kilt-wearer at a DragonCon hotel lobby and while engaging him in conversation, "accidentally" pressed the ON button. After the third such "accident," hotel security decided that repeat demonstrations, even for the sake of scientific inquiry, were against policy. Still, the idea was born. The young lady made a suggestion to the Con Committee, and the research continues to go on, mercifully in a hall with adult-only access.

Part One. The Main Attraction.

After explaining the rules (no full frontal, but anything else is up to the participants) and passing out the ear plugs to the front rows in anticipation of much excited screaming, the hosts proceeded to invite the participants to the stage, where the aforementioned lady awaited with the blower. It became quickly obvious that the participants were not pre-screened neither by age nor by physical shape, but rather by their sense of humor and strict dedication to having fun. Come to think of it, even though the event has no direct relation to sci-fi or fantasy, it was highly appropriate that it took place at DragonCon, where people gather for the weekend to put aside their differences and enjoy the out-of-the-ordinary entertainment they can't get elsewhere.

The appreciative screaming by the ladies was indeed deafening (I was not quick enough to grab the earplugs, and boy did I regret it), and was dispensed in relatively equal amounts to bodybuilders, skinny geeks and respectable-looking seniors. The men did vary their performances to keep them interesting in spite of the repetitive nature of the event. Most of them were more funny than either sexy or revealing (although a couple of performers bared enough to justify the adults-only admission). And truth be told, my favorite of them all was a shirtless bodybuilding performance by one of the hosts, who was not subjected to the blower treatment at all.

I noticed quite a few men in the audience. Most were there to accompany their wives or support their performing buddies. Some, such as a young gentleman I met while waiting  in line, attended out of pure curiosity, which as good a reason as any.

Before we knew it, the allotted hour went by, and the blower put away, but the full experience was not yet over.

Part Two. Role Reversal.

Upon exiting the room, the audience members were greeted, loudly and enthusiastically, but the performers, who were lined up a couple of rows deep, along one of the hallway walls. And now I understood why so many of the ladies in the audience were so attractively dressed. While the main event was about men putting on a show for the overwhelmingly female audience, the women were now giving the men something to admire as well. As with the performance, sounds of appreciations were dispensed generously to all. High- and low-fives were given by the passing women to their admirers. It was essentially a recreation of an old "woman walking by a construction crew," done in a manner at once over the top and entirely safe, with not a tinge of disrespect.

And thus the full performance was concluded, with Marriott Carpet pattern beer cozies handed out to the attendees as thanks for participation. However, for those still paying attention after all the excitement, at about 2 AM in the morning, there was something else to observe.

Part Three. Coming Home.

As I was walking through the outer hallway to get to one of the Hyatt Regency famous "go down to go up" escalators, I noticed a group of women congregating along one of the walls. I recognized some of them from the audience,so I became curious why they were lingering.

The women were there to pick up their husbands.

This final touch, while unscripted, could not have been more perfect.

We live in times when certain political and cultural forces work tirelessly to re-define the roles of men and women in society. Having essentially won the fight for women's rights and equality, they are attempting to destroy or at least confuse the most intimate, ingrained component of the male/female relationship: rules of courtship and sexual attraction. While making any kind of social statement had to be the furthest thing from the event organizers and participants, nevertheless it brings home some important and timeless truths,

Generally speaking, men like to strut their stuff, to both admire and be admired by the opposite sex.
Generally speaking, so do women.
But when all is said and done, nothing beats coming home to a partner who loves all of you, body and soul.
And, to quote an old credit card ad, having a partner who supports you occasionally doing something outlandish, and waits for you on the other end with a hug and a smile:

Sunday, August 19, 2018

A Not-Quite Movie Review: The Meg

I fully intended to write a real review for this one. But then I thought: who am I kidding? What could I possibly tell you about the movie that you can't get from the trailer? If you pay attention, it gives out every major plot point, and more importantly, if tells you exactly what you'd be getting for the 10+ bucks should you decide to shell them out.

Thus, what follows below, is not so much the review as some thoughts, or more precisely, a sort-of open letter to those who might benefit from paying attention to what makes certain movies successful with the audience while most "serious" film critics scoff at their very existence.

To the collective brains behind Marvel, DC, and Star Wars:

This is how you write strong female characters who are interesting, brave, and superbly capable-- without coming across as Mary Sues, arrogant, or obnoxious.

This is how you, at the same time, write men who are admirable and unabashedly masculine, who respect the women and the choices they make, while never losing the protective attitude towards them. Not every man in the movie fits that description but enough do, to one extent or another.

This is how you write the dialogue that feels real even in the most implausible circumstances. (Marvel writers, to their credit, haven't lost that particular talent. The others, not so much).

This is how you take a corny piece of wisdom and make it work perfectly within the context of the movie, enhancing the big action scene instead of throwing a wet blanket over it. (Looking at you, The Last Jedi).

This is how you take a script where the viewers can predict most plot points, including who lives and dies, yet still have the theater goers holding their collective breath during the crucial moments.

The bottom line? The big secret? The reason why the first words out of my mouth after the credits rolled were "Forget superhero movies. This was better."?

  Forget the A-Listers (although the acting skills were adequate for the task). Forget the insane special effects (although the giant shark scenes and the underwater voyage into the uncharted depths of the ocean were well done). What you really need is good writing and respect for the audience.

Both are crucial.

Good writing without respect for the audience results in scripts that are too complex, too clever, too in love with the next plot twist and subverting expectations, too intent on Making a Point and Being Relevant, often neglecting the movie's main purpose: to entertain.

Respect for the audience without good writing gives us what's known as fan service, or pandering, or whatever term applies in a particular case. Checking off all the popular themes and whatever filled seats in the past doesn't necessarily work if there's no coherent plot and we don't care about the characters.

The Meg has a good balance. It appeals to the lovers of adrenaline-rush action, while providing enough human interaction and likable characters to make us invested. It switches effortlessly from camp to heartbreak and back to camp. It's not a great movie, but it's a good one. Let's make an effort, as consumers, to reward the good. If you want a couple of hours of pure fun that will leave you satisfied, go see this movie. The next Big Awesome Must See entry into one of the franchises will be here soon enough, but those are no longer the only game in town. And from where I'm sitting, it's not a bad thing.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

To Be Men: Stories Celebrating Masculinity

As most anthologies, this one started with an idea, or more precisely in this case, some "what if" thinking.

With endless submission calls for stories written by [insert an identity group of your choice], one category of authors has never been singled out for a special opportunity: Men.

A few of us were hanging around in the virtual space of social media, discussing this curious phenomenon, when someone came up with a question.

 Could we create a collection of stories written only by men?

The thought was amusing for a while, as we considered the reactions that would inevitably come from certain circles: the accusations, the outrage, the lectures as to how such things just "weren't done." All, of course, would ignore the fact that the exclusionary submission calls were very much done because, well, the fairness standards just aren't the same across the board.

But then, after we've indulged in our daydreaming and considered some of the possibilities, we realized something.

Trolling the hypocrites would've been fun.

But we were not trolls. We were authors.

Our readers deserved something special, something better than a joke, something that truly met their needs and left them satisfied.

We were going to give them good stories.

Stories about men as heroes and role models, fathers and mentors, hardened warriors and even fantastic creatures. Men who are interesting, capable and worthy. Characters whom you'd want to meet, to spend time with, to learn from, and whose stories will stay with you after the reading is over.

And just like that, the authors' gender became irrelevant.

The project went from a semi-joking discussion to a serious endeavor. A female editor stepped in to take charge, and Superversive Press picked it up for publishing.

In the end, the anthology brought together authors from different backgrounds, writing in a variety of genres, and of course both men and women.

As it should be. After all, the focus on quality is not exclusionary. It is, in fact, the most even playing field that could possibly exist.

Personally, although I tend to gravitate towards reading male authors, two of my favorite entries in this collection came from women (Monalisa Foster's Cooper and Julie Frost's Man-Made Hell).

I was delighted when my story Picture Imperfect, set in the world of my dystopian novel Chasing Freedom, made the cut. Now, having seen the full project come to fruition, and having read the stories from my fellow contributors, I am honored to be in their company.

If the concept of celebrating masculinity appeals to you, or if you are simply looking for something exciting and fresh to read, give this new offering from Superversive Press a try.

Happy reading!

The paperback edition is ready to ship, just in time for Fathers' Day.

The E-book is available for pre-order and will be officially published on June 16.

Monday, May 28, 2018

On Memories and Barbecues

Today is Memorial Day, and our social media feeds are filled with photos, memes and articles honoring the fallen soldiers. These are proper and valuable, especially in these days where even on a holiday weekend we run from one event, task, or source of entertainment to the next without pausing for even a moment to remember the significance of the day and what it is we're supposed to be celebrating.

Nestled amongst those necessary poignant reminders are others, ranging from humorous to downright hostile, that tell us how Memorial Day is "not about a barbecue."

Those statements are correct, as far as they go. Memorial Day is not about a barbecue, any more than Christmas is about going to the mall.

Memorial Day, as all American Holidays -- in fact, as most national Holidays in the world -- is about more than the shallow manifestation of its celebration, but also more than its original intention. It's part of our national identity, our traditions one of the many things that still hold us together even in current times of political strife.

Yes, first and foremost, today is about remembering the sacrifice of the fallen.
It is also about taking time to think of them, not as faceless multitudes, not as torn up bodies on faraway battlefield, but as individuals.

They dreamed, laughed, had interests and hobbies; had family and loved ones. Each life was unique and valuable, and all of them were cut short.

Perhaps it is proper, then-- having paid respect to their memories, whether by thought, by prayer, by attending a local parade, or by visiting a military cemetery-- to spend at least part of the day enjoying the comforts of our lives, including food and drink, family and friends.

We get to live our lives, the way we want to, because countless others didn't.

But be sure to remember your enjoyment, your comfort, and more importantly your freedom came at a cost.

Ask yourself if you've done enough to keep that freedom, for yourself and for generations to come.

Resolve to do more, today and every day. There might be a price to pay-- there always is a price, even here and now-- in loss of friendships, financial comfort, family harmony, or even employment. Yet it pales in comparison to what those who came before us have already given.

Don't feel guilty over the fallen soldiers' sacrifice.

Just make it all worth it.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Dear Children, We Have Failed You.

A common theme surrounding the current hysterical calls for gun control is that adults have failed, and it's time for the children to come up with the solutions.

Never mind that only about 10% of the participants at The March For Our Lives were teenagers. Never mind that the organization and funding came from adults.
Never mind the endless adoring coverage from the legacy media.
Never mind the "spontaneous walk-outs" organized, encouraged and in some cases mandated by the schools.

The narrative is clear: the kids should take over and show the rest of us how it's done.
Because we the adults have failed.

And, in truth, we have.

My generation grew up during the tail end of the Cold War. We watched the Berlin Wall come down and the once-unstoppable Soviet Union fall apart. Those were heady times. People smarter than us spoke of the end of history. Freedom was on the march throughout the world and there was no stopping it.

Sure, there have been quibbling at the edges as to the causes of the fall of the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev received the Noble Peace Prize. Ronald Reagan's iconic "Tear Down This Wall" line has gone down in history even though most of the mainstream historians steadfastly refuse to give him any credit. But for the most part, especially as more details emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, everyone has accepted the fact that human progress towards freedom had been inevitable all along.

Those on the Right took it as validation that Western system of government has stood the test of time. Those on the Left decried the resources spent on the military and celebrated the peace dividend.

It was all good.

The mighty enemy was gone, its ideology defeated.

We could, pardon the expression of unfortunate origins, declare victory and go home.

And so we had.

With no visible external threat to worry about, we had our chance to give our children the best, most prosperous future that we could.

We obsessed over child safety. We baby-proofed our homes, searched out the safest crib designs, took hours to perfectly install that car seat and endlessly fretted about chemicals and allergens in baby food.

We read all the books, and we were going to get it right. Because, unlike the prior generations, whose worldview was colored by wars and ideological strife, we could afford the luxury.

Our error was as tragic as it was, in retrospect, obvious.

We'd become complacent.

We allowed our political leaders to take more and more control of our lives while we weren't paying attention.

Worse, and most unforgivably, while spending all our energy on keeping our children safe in body, we forgot to protect their minds.

We left both their entertainment and their education to the professionals, but we never stopped to check who those professions were, and, let's face it, had always been.

With the parenting books telling us to "trust the child," we hesitated to correct and question the ideas our children acquired from an early age. We thought a four-year-old crying that we were killing the planet, or a five-year old refusing to eat a hamburger was precocious and adorable. Our children were so smart! So advanced! They cared so much! Of course, they would surely outgrow the silliness and recognize the reality. Let them explore the ideas and think for themselves. After all, that's what modern schooling was about: teaching the children to think for themselves rather than forcing them to memorize all the boring facts.

We didn't so much miss the warning signs as we chose to ignore them.

In part, it was lack of time, what with both parents working as hard as they could to make sure we could still afford that house in the suburbs, where our kids could go to the best public schools. (And those "free" schools don't come cheap, but who can quibble with yet another local tax increase that would be going towards better education?).

But mostly, and let's be honest here, we simply didn't want to rock the boat. We didn't challenge the school curriculum, or whatever ideas individual teachers chose to feed into our children't minds under the guise of education. After all, we wanted to stay in good graces with the teachers and the school administrators. We wanted our children to have the best grades and the best behavior records. We were looking forward to filling out those college admission apps and having to ask teachers for recommendations. So why bother to challenge the status quo? What can one parent do against the whole educational system?

And so we waited and hoped. Our kids were smart. They had all the resources. Surely they would not be satisfied to simply read the books and listen to the teachers? They were bound to rebel eventually, to start asking questions, just like every generation before them?

Our hopes were in vain.

The new generation is "rebelling" not by asking questions, but by mindlessly repeating what they've been taught. They march hand in hand with their radical elders, demanding for their rights to be taken away, while claiming to own the future.

And make no mistake about it, we of Generation X bear much of the blame.

But all is not lost.

I, for one, refuse to wallow in generational guilt and to leave the world to the screeching multitudes of the brainwashed. We can acknowledge with brutal honesty what went wrong and refuse to double down on our mistakes.

We can teach those willing to be taught.
We can fight those who need to be defeated.
(And we would do well to learn the difference.)

What we can't do is despair and step aside.

There is a scene in my dystopian novel Chasing Freedom where a young man is wondering what it was like to live in the days when freedom was taken for granted, and how it all went wrong.

We know the answer to both.

What we do with that knowledge is up to us.

Dear children, we have indeed failed you. But rest assured, we are not giving up. Join us, and help us fix this broken world. You have nothing to lose but the chains of nihilism, hate and despair thrust upon you by those who wish to keep controlling your minds.

Don't let them.
Choose life.
Choose freedom.
Choose the future of your own making.

Let's get to work.