About Mario

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Born and raised in Los Angeles, Mario Piumetti is a freelance writer of science fiction, horror, screenplays, and nonfiction. He has a bachelor's degree in English from California Lutheran University and an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University. An avid music lover, his work is heavily influenced by rock, punk, and metal. You can contact him at mario.piumetti.writer@gmail.com.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

It's All Been Done

I recently saw the trailer for the film The 5th Wave based on Rick Yancey's 2013 novel.  The story is set during the 5the wave of an alien invasion; subsequent waves have been increasingly devastating.  In the first wave, the invaders (called the Others), shut down our power grid.  In the second wave, they use kinetic bombardment to destroy heavily populated coastal regions with tsunamis.  In the third, they unleash a lethal virus.

I've seen this story before.

In 2011, the Discovery Channel series Curiosity had an episode on alien invasions hosted by Michelle Rodriguez.  It featured interviews with physicists and military analysts.  They believed the first strike would be an EMP to knock out our electronics.  The second would be to bombard the coasts with heavy objects to generate tsunamis...

Yeah, I've seen this story before.  I recognized it the instant I saw The 5th Wave's trailer.  My immediate reaction was to say that Yancey was unoriginal, talentless enough to base his premise on something from TV.  However, I'm not entirely innocent of this myself, something I'll tell you about another time.

I have no real reason to sneer at Yancey's story, especially because I haven't even read it.  And if the premise comes from a documentary series, so what?  The battle plan he follows is sound, but the story is more important.

The Battle of Stalingrad is another example.  Harry Turtledove reimagined it in his World War novels with the Battle of Chicago putting Americans against invading aliens in a house-by-house fight to the death.  It can be said that the opening scenes of the series Falling Skies showing human survivors desperately struggling to survive in post-invasion Boston was inspired by the same event.

My point is this: just because someone discusses a topic in a documentary series, doesn't mean it's untouchable territory.  For the record, Yancey's fourth and fifth waves perpetrated by the Others has brainwashed human children hunting down survivors.  Curiosity didn't have that.  I know I'm starting to nitpick at it like the debate between McDonald's and McDowell's - the Big Mac versus the Big Mic, and the golden arches versus the golden arcs - but the matter comes down to what a writer can do with a particular idea and how they can spin their own blanket out of the same yarn.  If Yancey and I both approach that same Curiosity episode, we'd come up with different stories set in that same predicament.  If we both were asked to write an Apollo 13-like tale, again, we'd have too different stories.  I definitely wouldn't write for the young adult crowd.  I'd want to give the elderly nightmares.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Hook

I sat down to start reading SM Stirling's The Sky People.  Actually, it was my third reading.  The first time I saw the novel in a bookstore, the title grabbed me.  "Sky People" was a term used by the Na'vi to describe humans in the film Avatar.  The green cover showed two rifle-armed astronauts in a jungle with a triceratops and a saber-toothed tiger on the periphery, and the summary on the back - an alternate history story set during the Cold War in which Venus and Mars are habitable with their own native civilizations - sounded pretty cool.

The furthest I've gotten into The Sky People was about a quarter of the way through the book.  I think I got through the first couple of chapters in the first reading.  But tonight?  I got through chapter one, and put it down.  This is not a condemnation of Stirling's novel, or of Stirling himself as a writer.  I love science fiction.  I love alternate history, and I love stories set in a fictionalized Solar System when many other writers choose planets light-years away.

The Sky People has a lot going for it when it comes to world-building.  It realistically forces the Space Race into overdrive.  Stirling shows us a lush and identifiable Venus; Mars doesn't appear until the sequel In the Courts of the Crimson Kings.  We've got NATO-run Jamestown and Soviet-controlled Cosmograd.  Bronze-age natives clashing with Neanderthals.  Hell, there are even Encyclopedia entries describing this alternate Venus along with initial exploration decades earlier.

What The Sky People lacked - for me, at least - was a strong hook.  World-building is a great creative exercise, but the first job of the writer is to entertain and tell a good story.  A hook is the first step to draw in the reader.  Story world isn't a hook.  It's a stopper, a term I learned during a short stint as a charity fundraiser last month.  Yes, I was one of those guys on the sidewalk raising donations for charity.  People passed by me all day long, and a stopper is designed to do just that: stop potential donors (potential readers in this case).  You next give a quick icebreaker and an introduction to the pitch - remember, folks got places to go and people to see - but then you have to give them a problem or a crisis.

This is the real hook, a central problem so jarring that readers keep with the story to find the resolution.  Soviets put nukes into Cuba, and we want to know how America will dodge a nuclear war.  Flesh-eating zombies surround a house, and we wonder how the occupants inside will escape.  Claudius takes Hamlet's birthright, and we wonder how the prince will regain what was stolen.  I believe the crisis Stirling is trying to give us is that the Soviets were smuggling guns to Venus that got into the hands of the Neanderthals.  It's a good crisis with echoes of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Prime Directive of Star Trek, but unfortunately it didn't grab me as much as I would have liked.