Stef (firecat) wrote,

Walter Mosley, Futureland, cheesy vs. real horror, and why Star Wars was no good after Empire

I have been meaning to write about Futureland by Walter Mosley, which is a collection of nine short stories all set in the same near future cyberpunk world. (The subtitle is either "Nine Stories of an Imminent World" or Nine Stories of an Imminent Future.") The stories are arranged in chronological order and some of the characters recur, and there's some general movement in the shape of the world and its players, but there isn't really what you would call a plot holding the whole thing together.

For now I'll write in detail only about the first story, "Whispers in the Dark." It is about Ptolemy Bent, a computer prodigy who is born into a poor family. If they don’t put together enough money to pay for his education, the government will take him away and essentially use his intelligence as a weapon. The way they get the money is that (spoiler coloring, select to read) the boy's uncle goes off to a foreign country and sells a bunch of his body parts to be used as prosthetic parts for rich people. He comes back on a stretcher with his legs, eyes, and genitals missing. One thing that really impressed me about this story is that although his family is sort of horrified, at the same time they sort of accept it as the sort of thing that needed to be done. That makes the story much more emotionally moving for me than if I'm bashed over the head with how horrible it's supposed to be.

I contrast that with a novella I read recently, Dean Koontz’s “Black River,” where a Hollywood screen writer decides he is going to retire, so he goes to a small town, where he begins getting hounded by mysterious problems. Way too much is made out of the guy’s feelings of horror when things began to go wrong. And nothing all that bad really even happened to him, he just has his SUV taken away. (Other things happen later, but the "OMG this is so horrible" starts at that point.) And I know that part of it is supposed to be that he is spoiled, but one gets the definite impression that the reader is supposed to be horrified along with him.

I saw Walter Mosley read and speak at the local library last night. Audience members asked him how he writes his books. He said that he believes most creation does not happen in the conscious mind but instead it happens unconsciously, so creating for him is "catching" stuff that pop up from the unconscious mind. He was also asked which of his books were his favorites. He said that he is aware of technique problems in his books and sometimes he's a bit surprised when people say they like them, but he went on to say that not all good books are well-written. For example he described his first book (Devil in a Blue Dress) as having a sort of jazziness that the later ones don't necessarily have even if they are more skilled technically. (I'm not sure if "jazziness" was the word he used, but something similar.)

I find that writers who work the way he does like to be playful in their writing. Futureland is not the most technically skilled or the most carefully plotted science fiction I've ever read, nor does it have the most unusual ideas; but it's very playful and I find that really appealing. There's also a lot of variety in the stories; they range from small stories centered around a single family ("Whispers in the Dark") to surreal Prisoner-type settings ("Angel's Island") to anime-cyberpunk detective stories ("The Electric Eye"). I also find it appealing that Mosley writes fearlessly and intelligently about race, class, and capitalism in ways that make me feel like I'm "home" when reading his books. That is, I don't have to worry that I'll get pissed off on the next page about the writer's clueless politics.

I do have a few issues with the way he writes female characters. With a couple of exceptions, they are secondary characters and plot devices designed to motivate the main (male) characters. Also I feel like I have Too Much Information about what features in his favorite sexual fantasies. (I often feel this way when I read books by men, and I know that author is different from the characters, the narrators, the settings, and so on...but the feeling persists.)

I wish I had taken better notes about what Mosley said in his Q&A when he was asked about his science fiction writing. (The reading was sponsored by a mystery bookstore, so most of the audience were interested in his detective/mystery novels, such as the Easy Rawlins series, not his science fiction works.) I remember he said that he thinks Samuel Delaney is the greatest living writer, and he gave a great capsule race critique of Star Wars Episode 1 (nothing I haven't heard before, but very well summarized and funny) and expressed particular annoyance at the whitewashing and racism of Star Wars because Lucas was married to a woman of color. (This prompted me to do some research about Lucas's wife, Marcia Griffin, and I didn't find any references to her race, but I did find several comments that she had been largely responsible for the success of the original Star Wars movie and The Empire Strikes Back, and as she and Lucas divorced in 1983, it was no accident that Star Wars movies made after that were not as good.)

In response to a question about which of his books he would recommend to black men in prison (because he had mentioned earlier that there were 2 million black men in prison), Mosley said that black men have been particularly badly treated in most fiction. He said "when white people write us, we aren’t there or it’s not real” (brilliantly summing up RaceFail '09 in one sentence, IMO) and mentioned that for a while publishers of books by black women were influencing them to write negatively about black men. He said that because some of his characters can be role models for black men, his books are well known among men in prison.
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