Wednesday, July 27, 2011

SFOO interviews David Goyer and Michael Cassutt

It was an honor to interview such a talented pair of authors. David S. Goyer (top left) is a screenwriter, comic book author, film producer and director. His list of writing credits includes: Batman Begins, Dark Knight, Blade II and the TV series Flash Forward. Michael Cassutt (top right) is a screenwriter, American TV producer and author. He's written scripts for numerous sci-fi series such as: the 1985 Twilight Zone; Eerie, Indiana; Outer Limits; Farscape; Andromeda; Stargate SG1 and The Dead Zone. He was story editor for one of my all-time faves - Max Headroom. He also authored sci-fi and spaceflight thriller novels. His short stories have appeared in many pro mags.

AW: Can you share one or two brainstorming "aha" moments from the development stage for Heaven's Shadow?

DG: Well, one of the "aha" moments was to open the book with a nonlinear structure. Initially, the story was completely linear. But it took a LONG time to get to the NEO and we thought it might be interesting to employ some of the narrative techniques that Chris Nolan and I used on Batman Begins. Ultimately, we're glad we did.

We were also surprised with the final fate of some of the characters. There were certain characters that were intended to die at the books end and others that survived -- and as we were going through the various drafts, we ended up changing our minds with regards to some of them.

MC: We also had minor aha moments while simply working through the moves of the story. Realizing, for example, that in microgravity, a rover could be thrown off a cliff...

AW: I loved the moment when, after being confronted with the impossible at literally every step on the NEO, Zack is confronted with something so over-the-top (pod Megan) that it would have broken a lesser man. How did you come up with the new twist on the pod people?

DG: Well, to be fair -- that twist was what started the whole ball rolling. I thought it would be mind-blowing for what was, essentially, an alien starship, to end up containing something quite familiar. That was the genesis of the story. I'm also interested in using science-fiction to explore theological issues.

MC: This was part of David's original pitch -- the moment that I realized I had to work on the project. Not that I shy away from the theological aspects of SF -- I think a lot of the best SF _is_ theological. But I never would have dared this on my own.

AW: What aspect of collaboration do you enjoy most?

DG: I like the call-and-response nature of collaboration. Michael might have a notion -- he'll pitch it to me. It will strike me a certain way and I might make a slight alteration and pitch it back. Something new and different emerges from the back and forth. In this case, the book truly is a hybrid of our sensibilities.

MC: Yes, together we are more than the sum of our parts, or something like that. David has worked extensively in film, which is collaborative... and I've been on the staffs of a dozen TV series, which are nothing but collaboration. So I see the back-and-forth as fun, possibly even necessary.

AW: Can you explain your collaborative process?

DG: We begin by plotting the novel the old-fashioned way. We use index cards on a series of cork boards. That's how we were taught to break stories in television. That's how Chris Nolan and I work on the Batman films. It's an age-old system -- but there's something about the cards that just seems to work. Then, we will dive into various drafts -- kick the material back and forth. Revise, revise, revise... I'm constantly driving Michael crazy by pitching a lot of curveballs in the eleventh hour.

MC: Yes. After the days and hours of story breaking and outlining, and the cards, I will start writing, and David will be dogging me every step with new and/or better ideas. Ultimately HS went through a first draft and two significant revisions. What's there is both of us.

AW: What was the hardest thing about getting this project together?

DG: Probably just the amount of detail. The first novel is, necessarily, heavy on NASA-tech. But we wanted it to ring true. Michael has spent a lot of time in that world and I knew the breadth of his experience would be invaluable.

MC: The first steps of any writing project are daunting. There was a considerable amount of circling the story, the issues, the characters, and the structure.

AW: The characterization in Heaven's Shadow is outstanding. Do you have a particular method for fleshing out a character? Does having a writing partner help to keep your characters honest and consistent?

DG: We don't have a particular method for characterization. I suppose, initially, the characters start as a kind of sketch. But then, once we drop them into various situations, they begin to flesh out themselves. I will say that I am constantly preaching about the need for specificity. I always believe that the more specific you can get with a character's interests, back-story, the better.

MC: This is where screen and TV writing helps.... because, while we take full advantage of a prose writer's ability to stop or stretch time and to inhabit a character's POV, we are both aware that we are, in essence, writing for performance. So we try to "see" and "hear" our characters.... what are they wearing, hearing, how are they standing, etc. I think this all helped the characters come to life.

AW: Can you give us a teaser for the next book? The movie?

DG: The next book deals with the consequences of what the humans have found on the NEO. More specifically, it deals with WHY the Architects bothered to send the NEO into our neck of the woods in the first place. It takes a lot of energy and willpower to put a craft like that into space -- to guide it for so many years. By the book's end, without spoiling too much -- there are a LOT of humans on the NEO. Not just the first 8 astronauts that land on it. So we get into some complicated group dynamics. And I'll reveal one more thing -- "the habitat" the astronauts discover is not the only one on the NEO.

In terms of the movie, I'm just now getting into the screenplay. It's a tricky adaptation. And in some cases, I've found myself writing scenes that we'd abandoned in the book!

AW: Are you working on other projects now that you'd like to mention to our readers?

DG: Well, the sequel to Heaven's Shadow, obviously. Then, of course, I've got two little super-hero movies shooting now -- The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel.

MC: Heaven's War consumes my working time at the moment. I also have a TV project I'm about to start pitching.... in partnership with a writer who is more famous and popular right now than David, or me, or both of us put together.


If you haven't already, make sure to read my review of Heaven's Shadow.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Reading and cramming

The posts have been a bit thin as I've been cramming for placement tests to go back to school (algebra is NOT like riding a bike) and now am cramming for voting on the Hugos. Want to join me, just for fun? Get the list of nominated works on the Renovation site.

See if your picks make it. I'll include a Hugo awards announcement in my con report for Worldcon.

Speaking of awards, at Readercon in Massachusetts last weekend, the Shirley Jackson awards (recognizing outstanding achievement in horror, psychological suspense and dark fantasy) were handed out as follows:


  • Mr. Shivers, Robert Jackson Bennett (Orbit)
  • Dark Matter, Michelle Paver (Orion)
  • A Dark Matter, Peter Straub (Doubleday)
  • Feed, Mira Grant (Orbit)
  • The Reapers Are the Angels, Alden Bell (Holt)
  • The Silent Land, Graham Joyce (Gollancz)

  • Mysterium Tremendum, Laird Barron (Occultation)
  • The Broken Man, Michael Byers (PS)
  • Chasing the Dragon, Nicholas Kaufmann (ChiZine)
  • One Bloody Thing After Another, Joey Comeau (ECW)
  • Subtle Bodies, Peter Dubé (Lethe)
  • The Thief of Broken Toys, Tim Lebbon (ChiZine)


  • “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains”, Neil Gaiman (Stories)
  • “–30–”, Laird Barron (Occultation)
  • “The Broadsword”, Laird Barron (Black Wings)
  • “Holderhaven”, Richard Butner (Crimewave 11: Ghosts)
  • “The Redfield Girls”, Laird Barron (Haunted Legends)

Short Story

  • “The Things”, Peter Watts (Clarkesworld 1/10)
  • “As Red as Red”, Caitlín R. Kiernan (Haunted Legends)
  • “Booth’s Ghost”, Karen Joy Fowlder (What I Didn’t See and Other Stories)
  • “The Foxes”, Lily Hoang (Haunted Legends)
  • “six six six”, Laird Barron (Occultation)

Single-Author Collection

  • Occultation, Laird Barron (Night Shade)
  • The Ones That Got Away, Stephen Graham Jones (Prime)
  • The Third Bear, Jeff VanderMeer (Tachyon)
  • What I Didn’t See and Other Stories, Karen Joy Fowler (Small Beer)
  • What Will Come After, Scott Edelman (PS)

Edited Anthology

  • Stories, Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio, eds. (Morrow)
    Black Wings, S.T. Joshi, ed, (PS)
    Haunted Legends, Ellen Datlow & Nick Mamatas, eds. (Tor)
    My Mother, She Killed Me, My Father, He Ate Me, Kate Bernheimer, ed. (Penguin)
    Swords & Dark Magic, Jonathan Strahan & Lou Anders, eds. (HarperCollins)

A Board of Directors special award went to Joyce Carol Oates.

You probably know by now that Borders is dead in the water, completely liquidating. It's time to support your local bookstores. ebooks are great, but they bypass that familiar tactile relationship we have with our books.

So, are you smarter than an ape? If you have an iPhone or iPad, you can get a new app that will pit you against simian intelligence. Sounds like a fun way to monkey around. Or maybe they're just bananas. See for yourself at

The Rise of the Planet of the Apes comes to theaters on August 5th.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Heaven's Shadow is a thrill ride

Heaven's Shadow
David S. Goyer and Michael Cassutt
Ace Penguin Hardback, July 2011

Reviewed by Ann Wilkes

Heaven's Shadow begins with quite a few familiar sci-fi elements: alien artifact, space exploration, first contact and pod people. But what David S. Goyer and Micahael Cassutt do with these still shiny plot elements is magic. In 2017, a Near Earth Object has come within the range of existing manned spacecraft. NASA and the Russian-Indian-Brazilian Coalition both divert manned missions to the moon to the NEO instead.

After both vehicles touch down, NASA suffers a casualty when an astronaut is thrown by what they believed to be the venting of a volcano. The home team, headed by Harley Drake, discovers that the "ventings" aren't random, but have served to park the NEO in a stable orbit. The X2016 K1 NEO, dubbed Keanu (yeah, that didn't thrill me either), is actually an alien space ship. The Coalition team helps to get the injured astronaut to safety and then members from each team explore the vent together.

Zack didn't have to ask any of them to take pictures, or do a radar scan. Lucas, Natalia and Pogo swarmed the marker, recording every possible angle. Lucas had hauled a new camera from the sled, bulkier and less finished-looking than the other instruments. "What's a Zeiss MKK?" Zack said.

At that moment, Pogo noted a wisp of vapor on the leg of the commander's suit. "Boss," he said, suddenly worried, pointing. "Check your pressure."

But Zack didn't seem worried. "This chamber is pressurized. Look at the ground..."

Pogo did, and saw a puddle. "Zack," he said.

"I think its water," the commander said quickly. "It appeared to be melt from my boots. Yours, too, I'm guessing."

Natalia disagreed. "There's more here than we were carrying."

Then Lucas said, "I hear something."

And Pogo realized he'd been hearing it, too. "Is that wind?"

"What the hell is going on?" Natalia said. She sounded nervous. Pogo couldn't blame her. Puddles of liquid? Air pressure? Wind? Some of those conditions could exist on the surface of Mars, so it wasn't unthinkable.

But on a NEO –
inside a NEO?

Commander Zack Stewart must keep control of a mission that has taken a serious left turn into unexpected first contact and is further complicated with an injured comrade, the death of another ... and then there's the appearance of his undead wife.

Heaven's Shadow is a thrill ride from start to finish with exciting action back on Earth as well. Zack's friend, Harley Drake, in addition to his regular NASA Home Team duties, is tasked with keeping track of Zack's teenage daughter while she's there in the visitor area. Things get really interesting for Rachel when she's able to talk to someone who claims to be the mother she lost two years before. And Harley is then tapped as point person and team leader of the “48 Committee” which is the pre-designated term for experts assembled for any possible alien contact situation.

The book is first in a series. I'm sorry I have to wait a whole year to find out what happens next. Heaven's Shadow does have an ending of sorts. Much is resolved, though the journey has only just begun.

I appreciated the very human drama embedded in the science-laden, near future world. It's like space opera meets techno thriller. Heaven's Shadow is a must read – and soon to be a must see. Goyer is a screenwriter, comic book author, film producer and director. Cassutt is a screenwriter, American TV producer and author. They have been working on both the movie and the books. Look for Heaven's Shadow from Warner Bros., possibly as soon as July of 2012.

Read my interview with Goyer and Cassutt.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Our Town - with zombies - live in NY

How the Day Runs Down
by John Langan
Nicu's Spoon Theatre

Reviewed by Clare Deming

Visitors, commuters, and inhabitants of New York City should watch out for zombies on their streets this month. How the Day Runs Down, written by John Langan, opened last weekend at Nicu's Spoon Theatre on W 38th Street. Langan's fiction has previously appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 2, and his collection, Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters (Prime Books, 2008). "How the Day Runs Down" was first published in The Living Dead (Night Shade Books, 2008), edited by John Joseph Adams, and was written as a play. Described by the theatre as "Our Town" but with zombies, this production takes the source material and makes very few changes in the transition to the stage.

Blood-streaked walls and haunting music greeted me in the tiny theatre. The Stage Manager (Mark Armstrong) narrates the story of the town of Goodhope Crossing amid a zombie incursion. Within commuting distance of New York City, Goodhope Crossing is full of "normal" people and the plot examines how they react when faced with the supernatural threat. In the early scenes, a churchgoer tries to halt the advance of his zombified pastor, and two siblings hope to prevent their grandmother from rising out of the earth. In the most chilling and longest section, Elizabeth A. Bell plays a housewife and relates the events of the day that the zombies invaded her quiet street. The kids watch a DVD in the next room while she boils water for mac and cheese and reminisces about good-natured squabbles with her husband. Elizabeth A. Bell's performance was perfect and allowed me to achieve the suspension of disbelief necessary to the experience. By evoking these details of everyday life the horror of the later events is amplified. If this could happen in such a normal suburb to such a real person, then surely it must be true. And if the events are all true, then I am genuinely horrified by what happens.

The sound effects consisted mainly of screams and were jarring and loud. However, that is appropriate for a scream, I believe. The set was sparse and dark, with few props to distract from the actors - just some headstones, rifles, and a pot for boiling water. The lighting was also simple, but most of the show involved one or two speaking actors with zombies lurking at the periphery, so this was suitable. The zombie actors held vacant stares amazingly well and I don't know how they managed to avoid blinking for so long. I enjoyed the costumes - my favorite zombies were Jon Rios as the Skateboard Zombie and Sammy Mena as Ms. No-Face. Gore was minimal other than some blood-stained clothing and Ms. No-Face's mess of a face.

The show ran for ninety minutes with no intermission. Cold soda and water were available for purchase. The only problem that detracted from my enjoyment was that the seating was uncomfortable - plain straight backed chairs that could have used more padding. If you're a zombie fan I would definitely recommend this show, and for non-fans, I think it would still provide a good evening of entertainment.

How the Day Runs Down is playing Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm through July 24. Tickets are available at:

Thursday, July 7, 2011

What makes a great story?

I'm inundated with books to read for review. I can't read them all, and I don't review all the books I read. If it's a real stinker, I won't even finish it. If it's borderline, I may hang in there, hoping it will get better, or maybe to see how it ends (in spite of the sloppy delivery). If I can't find more good things to say than bad, I won't bother to write the review. Wouldn't you rather read a review of a good book than a skewering of a bad one?

I recently tried a book that had horrible worldbuilding. I don't know how it got published. A society would just never buy into such a crazy, illogical system. My plausibility meter (or PLAUSOMETER) was screaming for mercy. If I can't put myself in the author's world, there's no hope of enjoying the story.

I thought it might be helpful or amusing to share what I believe are the necessary elements of a really good story. I'll also give you the same number of turn-offs. I'm not including poor grammar and simple lack of decent editing as that goes without saying.

What I look for in a good book:
1) FOUNDATION. The world, society, premise and tech (or whatever fantastical element is present) must be believable.

2) CHARACTERS. The main character must be multi-layered and someone I can sympathize with on some level - even if it's a bad person (or being). The motivations of the characters must be believable without dumping half a chapter of back story in to convince me. And each character should have a unique voice. I read a book once in which even the aliens and humans sounded the same.

3) PLOT. There must be a unique plot that moves forward. I like action, but not just for action's sake.

4) DIALOG. The dialog must be natural.

5) INTEREST. The world, tech (or magic) must be interesting and unique. Or at least put together in a unique combination.

And here are the things that will make me stop reading (or even throw the book across the room):

1) BAD SCIENCE. Remember this can also apply to sociology. Would people really believe that? Live like that? You get the idea.

2) SCIENCE LECTURE. Is this a science book or a science fiction book? Okay, great, you're a brilliant scientist who knows all this cool stuff. But if you're not telling a story, you've lost me.

3) MEETINGS. This will definitely get the book tossed across the room. I don't like attending them, why would I want to read about them? Quit talking about it - just do it already. I love a lot of James P. Hogan's stuff, but I quit reading one of his for this reason.

4) BAD DIALOG. There's nothing like stilted dialog to yank me out of a story. Stilted dialog and those "As you know, Bob..." bits. This is from the Turkey City Lexicon. My critique group partners will find, from time to time, AYKB in red pen on their manuscript. It's a transparent device for delivering information to the reader which involves the character telling something to another character which that character surely already knows. And addressing people by their name constantly. Or slipping in and out of dialect.

5) CHARACTERS. If I can't relate to them or sympathize with them, I could care less what happens to them. I like character-driven plots.

I would love to hear from you about what YOU like in a good book. And what makes YOU throw a book across the room. Leave a comment and let me know. It will make you feel better.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Kea's Flight - in a ship of imperfect children

Kea's Flight
by Erika Hammerschmidt and John C. Ricker

Reviewed by Deirdre Murphy

“More. I want more food.”

A boy nearby was dawdling, taking forever to eat his energy bar. Two whole bites’ worth of it were just sitting there uneaten, and it had been bigger than mine to start with. The boy wasn’t skinny like me. He had extra fat on his sides and his neck that wiggled a little as he moved. It wasn’t fair.

“You. Give me that bar now.” I walked toward him, reaching out for his food. “I’m still hungry. They give you more food than me, and you don’t need as much. So give it to me right now.”

He made eye contact, curious, holding out the bit of energy bar as if to ask me if that were really what I wanted.

Beep. Beep. Beep. One of the cafeteria robots rolled toward the boy, taking away the morsel. I looked at the bot expectantly, wondering if it would correct the unfairness and give it to me. But it simply opened a compartment in the front of its body, inserted the food, and then grabbed the boy and held him down. A tube emerged from just above the compartment; one of the robot’s steel claws helped push the tube up his nose and down his throat, force-feeding him the now-dissolved energy bar.

Kea’s Flight
by Erika Hammerschmidt and John C. Ricker

I loved the opening scene of Kea's Flight, which features a very young Kea stuck in a situation that’s strange to the reader and incomprehensible to her. She’s real and vivid, her Asberger’s perfectly depicted, and Kea herself is sympathetic in her imperfection. I wanted to know more about how she got into such a predicament, and what would happen to her.

Kea was raised on a spaceship, gestated in an artificial womb and destined to help colonize a planet. Kea and all of the other children on the ship were genetic rejects, removed into artificial wombs by parents who didn’t want to keep them and a government that forbade abortion.

I know that in our world, parents with one socially-challenged child have their hands full—imagine surrogate parents, assisted by robots, who must somehow raise dozens of children with handicaps, all the same age, decanted from their artificial wombs in the same year! Kea’s early life was not easy.

I was sucked in by that first scene, thankfully before the too-long exposition about autism and Asbergers that lurks near the beginning of the book. I think those paragraphs should have been cut completely, or at least been relegated to an appendix in the back. It wasn’t anything new or ground-breaking, just real-world background information—and information that is mentioned in the book as it is needed in any case, since the “rems” are brought up with knowledge of their prenatal diagnoses and what those diseases do to the people who suffer from them.

Happily, the book quickly returns to Kea and her slowly growing circle of delightfully quirky friends. Kea invents a game that allows them to speak with each other freely about things their caretakers would punish them for, and her first friend finds ways to access information that their caretakers don’t think the flawed children in their care can handle. Together, they face threats from their caretakers (themselves misfits who were exiled from Earth for one reason or another) and from the ship itself, which they come to understand was put together as cheaply as possible while still keeping up the appearance that these “removed” children will have a chance at a good life.

If all goes well, they’ll reach their destination planet on their collective 21st birthday, at which time they will, according to the learning tapes, be granted the rights and privileges of adults, and allowed to make lives on the planet’s surface. But the planet was chosen from afar, more than 1000 planet-years ago, by scientists who had incomplete information. If the planet isn’t suitable, or if something happened to it while they traveled at relativistic speeds through deep space, what then?

The author also reveals glimpses of the spaceship from the other side—the grownups on the ship have fallen under the control of a dangerous psychopath, and many are convinced that Kea, her friends, and all the children living in Kea’s side of the ship are all defective children, who will never be capable of assuming the responsibilities of adults.

Everything comes to a head when they are 19, and the ship reaches the point where the computers can get a visual of the planet, and the programs scan for the elements in the new planet’s air, triggering a computer bug with dangerous consequences for everyone on the ship. Kea and her friends must act fast, for the lives of everyone on the ship are at stake, grown-ups and rems alike.