William Shunn is a computer programmer turned award nominated science fiction writer, missionary turned accidental terrorist, and web programmer for Motley Crue turned web programmer for Big Bird. He is also the Hugo and Nebula Award–nominated author of over thirty works of short fiction, which have appeared since 1993 everywhere fromAsimov’s Science Fiction to Salon these are his good things.
Good things to read.
Little America by Henry Bromell. Henry Bromell is best known as a television writer and producer, with credits stretching from Northern Exposure and Homicide: Life on the Street through Rubicon and Homeland. But his writing career began in the 1970s, with a string of linked short stories (mostly published in the New Yorkers) that fictionalized his peripatetic childhood as the son of a CIA case officer. In 2001 he returned to that setting for this marvelous novel in which an adult writer tries to unravel the mysteries of his father’s espionage career. The tension between what Terry Hooper remembers witnessing as a child in 1958 and what was actually going on in the (fictional) kingdom of Kurash fuels the most cogent and compelling exploration of the history and politics of the modern Middle East, and Western meddling, that I’ve ever read.
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples. The hippest, most inventive space opera of the past couple of years isn’t a book, movie, or TV show, but an ongoing comic series from the writer of Y: The Last Man and the artist of North 40. Saga is an exciting far-future thriller, moving family drama, and terrifying horror story at the same time, not to mention a very adult exploration of such topics as cross-species love and child exploitation. Best of all, it’s a collaboration in the truest sense, with Staples’ feverish art and creature designs feeding back into Vaughan’s writing. And they’re not afraid to take a hiatus every six issues to be sure they don’t rush the magic. I’m delighted that (for once) I managed to get in on the ground floor with this one.
The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction by Stephen Koch. For any writer of fiction, this how-to manual from the former chair of the Creative Writing Department at Columbia University reads more like an extended one-on-one session with the wise, compassionate mentor you wish you’d found in college. Koch’s advice is top-notch, but more importantly is freeing. Perhaps the most important section in this book is the one where he gives you permission and encouragement to just start writing. I’ve read a lot of books on writing in my time, and this is hands-down the best.
Good things to watch.
Europa Report (2013), directed by Sebastián Cordero, screenplay by Philip Gelatt
You may think you’ve seen this tale of doomed space explorers before, in everything from Alien to Sunshine, but what sets apart this modest but moving story of a mission to Jupiter’s icy moon is top-tier acting married to rigorous adherence to scientific fact. We never lose hope as the noose tightens for this very human band of astronauts, and the decisions they make ultimately make this movie more a paean to the advancement of science than a monster mash note.
Attack the Block (2011), written and directed by Joe Cornish. In this very British monster movie, a young nurse reluctantly joins forces with her teenaged muggers to defend their London tower block from an invasion of murderous aliens. Little seen in the U.S., Attack the Block is the most pure fun I’ve had at the movies in years. (I dragged four different friends to see it in the theater on four separate occasions.) The fact that it was executive-produced by Edgar Wright might tell you a bit about its tone, but may not prepare you for the sheer brio with which Cornish directs. The accents can be impenetrable at first, but don’t worry, you’ll pick up on it all pretty quickly. Nick Frost has a very funny role as a low-level drug dealer, but the real stars are the teen actors, who helped Cornish develop the movie’s colorful slang.
Terriers. This 2010 buddy detective series from FX didn’t make much of an impression on viewers — except for the loyal few who gave it chance. Those who did discovered a refreshing portrayal of male friendship wrapped in crackling dialog and terrific acting. Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James had more chemistry than just about any television duo I can remember, even as creator Ted Griffin and producer Shawn Ryan put their characters through more hell than two trying-to-be-nice guys should ever have had to face. The series finale was wrenching, and though it was left open-ended, the final scene still plays as the kind of epitaph most shows would have killed for. This is only time I’ve ever written to a network begging for a show to be renewed. There’s been no DVD release yet, sadly, but you can now get it on Netflix Instant or Amazon Instant Video
Good things to use.
Roku 3. I’m a proud cable-cutter, and my Roku units are the reason why. With Hulu Plus, Netflix Instant, Amazon Instant Video, and hundreds of other channels available, if I can’t watch it via my Roku then I figure I don’t need to watch it at all. The RF remote doesn’t require line of sight to work, which means you can mount the device out of sight on the back of your TV, with the latest version you can even plug headphones into the remote for private audio. Roku is easy to hook up to your TV, and best of all the various units are all priced between $50 and $100.
Sonos. I always dreamed being the guy with speakers wired into every room of his house, all controllable from one central unit. Sonos takes that dream a step further with a wireless sound system that lets you configure anywhere from one to 32 speaker units throughout your house. You can set them up singly or configure them in stereo pairs — it all depends on how many units you care to buy. (And you can add more any time you like.) You can stream the same music (whether from your local MP3 library or online services like Spotify or Pandora) or radio programming to all units, or different send different streams to different rooms, however you choose. Sonos even makes a soundbar for your television, and the TV audio track can be streamed to other rooms too. My only problem with Sonos is saving up the money to buy more speaker units for more rooms.
WordPerfect. I’ve been a WordPerfect user since about 1986 (version 4.2 for DOS), and I’ve resisted switching to any other word processor in all the years since. Why? WordPerfect is simply the most sensible word processor out there. The “Reveal Codes” feature is one big reason; like viewing the source of an HTML document, it lets you peek behind the screen and see exactly where all your formatting tags begin and end. (Try that with Microsoft Word.) That’s because WordPerfect documents have been structured using SGML-like markup since long before the Web popularized the concept. There’s also a fully featured scripting language for writing macros. I’ve written a lot of them over the years, and I’d be lost without them. I still write all my fiction in WordPerfect, only exporting to Word format (under protest) when I have to send something to an agent or editor. (Full disclosure: I worked for WordPerfect from 1991 to 1994, and was a member of the development team that built version 6.0 for DOS — the final DOS version of WordPerfect, as it turned out. 80×86 assembly language, baby!)
Connect with William on Twitter, @Shunn.