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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Closing Time

The Ranting Room has come to an end and is now closed. Thank you for all your support, suggestions, kind words, and thoughtful contributions over the past four years.

The Friday Challenge continues at its new home, TheFridayChallenge.com.

Arrivederci,
~brb

"May You Live in Interesting Times"

It was a late night. The Mrs and The Kid both had the flu and so went to bed early, but in proof of the truism that no good deed goes unpunished, a bit of pro bono work I'd done for a non-profit last year had come back to sink its little terrier-like fangs into my buttocks one more time. After that mess was cleared up there were bills and bookkeeping matters requiring attention, and so it was well past midnight when I finally shut off the lights in my office and came upstairs.

He was sitting there in the living room, in the comfortable chair by the reading lamp, with a book in his lap, a glass of brandy in his hand, and a scowl on his face. In all, a most remarkable display of solidity for a ghost, I thought.

"Mr. President," I said.

Nixon looked at that glass in his hand, and then turned his scowl on me. "Christian Brothers, Bruce?"

"Sorry. Times are tight. Hennessy is out of the budget. Did you see our latest heating bill?"

Nixon's scowl faded to a frown. "It's been a cold month in Hell, too." He sighed, and then took a sip of the brandy, and grimaced.

"Besides," I said, "I thought you were a tee-totaler."

"Former tee-totaler. That changed. In time I learned to drink even the vilest Chinese firewater, when the occasion required."

"Ah," I nodded. "That famous photo of you and Mao, toasting each other's good health."

"Good health my ass," he said. "What Mao was actually saying at the moment that shutter snapped was, 'May you live in interesting times.' It's a curse, I'm told."

Nixon tried another sip of the brandy. It seemed to go down better this time. "Of course, when I answered him a moment later it was with, 'And may you choke on this most excellent rat poison, you fat commie sonuvabitch.' Boy, the translators were having some fun that day." Nixon smiled at the memory.

I interrupted his reverie. "So how is Mao doing these days?"

Nixon shrugged. "Beats me. I only went to look him up once, and that was nearly fifteen years ago." He considered the brandy a moment, but this time didn't drink.

"Hell is full of special places; you know that. But there is a really exceptionally special place in Hell for leaders who murder millions of their own people.

"Mao's sepulchre is amazing. Enormous, bright red; you can see it for miles. It's made entirely of wrought- and cast-iron, and decorated with these incredible huge, ornate, carved dragons, and bas-reliefs of heroic workers and all that. Very Chinese; very Communist; very Peking Opera. It's just beautiful.

"Except that when you get closer to it, you realize: that's not red paint. It's red hot. And in the very center of it all, underneath tons of red-hot iron and perched right in the middle of the perpetual flame, there is a small, plain, red-hot iron casket, just slightly larger than the body of a man, inside which Mao screams and sizzles in his own body fat for the rest of eternity.

"It's revolting beyond nauseating. The entire area reeks of rancid pork fried rice. And I thought the disgusting syphilitic old bastard stank when he was alive. He had a strange phobia about bathing, you know." Nixon rolled the thought over in his mind for a few more moments, and then rinsed it away with another sip of brandy. The level in the glass, I noticed, was diminishing with each sip. I wondered if I even could refill his glass, or if doing so would violate some psychic ectoplasmic spiritual something or other.

"I guess both of our wishes were granted," he said softly. "Mao died wretchedly just a few years after that, and my life certainly got a lot more interesting." For a minute or more after that Nixon seemed inclined only to muse, sip, and sigh. I was tired and cranky already. It got on my nerves.

"So," I said at last. "To what do I owe the honor of this visitation?"

Nixon seemed momentarily startled to notice me there, and then recovered quickly and offered up a small smile. "Farewell visit? After all, this is how The Ranting Room began: with you, channeling for me." He smiled again, weakly this time, and shrugged. "Word gets around. So when I heard that you were retiring—"

"I am not retiring," I protested. "I'm just reordering my priorities. There's the new blog—"

"You're retiring," he said. "Or at least retiring as the creator and chief writer of The Ranting Room. You're getting onto that big old helicopter, throwing one last great big 'V' to the crowd, and riding off into the sunset.

"Oh, you're not really retiring," he added. "Your type never does. Tomorrow, or maybe the next day, you'll be starting up something new. You can never just relax; never stop to smell the roses without noticing that they need to be dusted for aphids. Even when you're not working, you're thinking about working. You'll be starting up some new project on the morning of the day you die."

That stopped me cold. "Oh? You peeked?"

Nixon shook his head. "I told you: I can't tell you. It's against the rules. I can only tell you about possible futures. I can't tell you which one is the real one."

This time it was my turn to be silent and thoughtful for a minute or more. A good strong whiff of your own mortality will do that to you, I guess. Nixon took the opportunity to empty his glass. When I noticed it was empty, by reflex, I got up, got the brandy, and poured him another two fingers. Only after I capped the bottle did I register that I had not poured it through the spectral glass and onto the chair. A most remarkable display of solidity, indeed.

It was his turn to break the silence. "So," he said at last. "You're telling everyone you're going off to write a novel. Will this be an entirely new one, or are you finally going to finish Nixon's Inferno?"

I shook my head. "Nah. Not that one, anyway. My agent said it was hopelessly unsellable. The only way to make it work in today's market—"

"Is by depicting me as being even worse than Satan, and Philip Roth flogged that one to death back in '71. Yes, I remember." Nixon frowned, and shook his head. "Still, it seems a shame. I mean, I always thought A Conspiracy of Cats was one of the best extended multi-part posts you ever did for this blog. Except that it kind of crapped-out at the ending."

My turn to scowl at him. "Yeah, well, if you'd given me a good ending to work with in the first place, instead of the one you did give me."

He switched back to his disarming smile. "I told you: it's against the rules. Possible futures only." He took a rather larger slug from his glass this time, and then lifted it in a sort of salute. "You must admit, though, as demented as that ending was, it didn't begin to compare to what really happened. Honestly, would you have believed me if I'd told you back in January of '07 that That Woman would lose the primaries, the nomination, and ultimately the election to Zaphod Beeblebrox?"

"What?" Talk about your neck-snapping sharp turn into Dimension X...

Nixon shook his head. "Oh, Bruce, and here I thought you knew Douglas Adams line and verse. Let us now turn to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, chapter 4:"
'The President in particular is very much a figurehead—he wields no real power whatsoever. He is apparently chosen by the government, but the qualities he is required to display are not those of leadership but those of finely judged outrage. For this reason the President is always a controversial choice, always an infuriating but fascinating character. His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it.'
Nixon finished his recitation, smiled, and then set down his glass and clasped his hands in his lap. "Hence, President Barack Beeblebrox, and Secretary of State That Woman. You are definitely living in some very interesting times now. It was a good decision on your part to close The Ranting Room. You wouldn't have been able to maintain your No Politics rule much longer, and sooner or later you'd have written something that would have gotten you into real trouble."

I was still shaking my head. "President Bee— No, wait a minute, Secretary of State That Woman? In all these years, you've never told me: what exactly is your problem with Hil—"

"SHH!" Nixon shushed me with a warning finger. "Do not mention that foul name in this fair place!"

I blinked in astonishment. Several times.

"Look, it's very simple," Nixon said. "That Woman was a lawyer working for the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate investigation. According to her former boss, Jerry Zeifman—a lifelong Democrat, by the way, and the career civil-service attorney who was general counsel and chief of staff for the judiciary committee—she was put on the staff as a favor to Teddy Kennedy, and then did her best to sabotage the investigation. She violated confidentiality, confiscated public documents, "lost" files, and wrote fraudulent legal briefs, all in an effort to keep me from having the right to legal counsel and to cross-examine witnesses. In the end she was fired, and Zeifman recommended that she never again be put into a position of public trust!"

By this point Nixon's jowls were quivering with anger—and he abruptly seemed to realize that this was happening, and forced himself to relax and lower his voice. He picked up the glass of brandy again. Slowly, carefully, methodically, he took another sip. He swallowed. He chuckled.

"And now, Secretary of State. Oh yes, interesting times indeed."

I went back to shaking my head. "I don't know. This sounds so... paranoid. Oliver Stone paranoid. Jim Garrison-grade paranoid. Why—"

Nixon set his glass down sharply and snapped forward. "Because they wanted to make sure I didn't put E. Howard Hunt on the witness stand under oath!" He caught himself again; forced himself to relax, again. Sighed.

"Before he came to work for me, Hunt was an old-school spook," he explained. "Wartime OSS, postwar CIA, Bay of Pigs. And then he became Kennedy's chief of domestic covert and black bag CIA ops. Hunt had the dirt on JFK like you wouldn't believe. He knew where all the bodies were buried, because he'd buried them himself. He knew things about JFK and Johnson that made Watergate look like a schoolboy prank.

"And if you were, say, Teddy Kennedy, and you were looking at a run for the Presidency in 1976—well, we wouldn't want anything coming out that might besmirch the memory of the blessed Saint JFK now, would we?"

Nixon looked at his glass again, decided against another sip, and then looked at me with a frustrated smile.

"I was a fool," he said. "I thought the nation couldn't stand the shock of knowing any of that. The country was fractured; reeling. You were there; you remember. There were literally battles in the streets. I thought that if the people ever got a good look at what was really going on inside the machinery of government..."

Nixon's voice tapered off.

"And so, for the good of the nation, I allowed myself be talked into resigning. Just as twelve years earlier, for the good of the nation, I'd agreed not to contest the 1960 election, even though we all knew it was the legendary Voting Dead of Cook County that put JFK into office. And now here we are, forty-eight years later, with a first-class product of the Cook County Democratic Party machine—the most provably corrupt political organization since Tammany Hall—sitting in the Oval Office. And I thought my times were interesting."

This time Nixon lifted the glass and took a long, slow, deliberate drink. When he set the glass down again I noticed it was getting low and uncorked the bottle of brandy again, but he waved me off. "Almost done," he said. He paused.

"Do you know what my greatest mistake was?" Nixon asked.

I couldn't resist. "You got involved in a land war in Southeast Asia?"

Nixon barely mustered the energy to scowl at that. "No, that was Kennedy and Johnson's mistake and you know it. Kissinger and I got us out of that mess, and that's what's shaved a couple eons off my time in Purgatory."

I nodded. "Then it must have been all the Keynesianism and wage and price controls."

Nixon shrugged. "The jury is still out on that." He pursed his lips, and drew a deep breath. "No, my greatest mistake was that I gave them a sword."

"Ah," I said, as a tiny dim bulb of recognition lit up. "The David Frost interviews."

Nixon gagged audibly. "Dear God, I hope people aren't mistaking Frost/Nixon for history. You have Frost's book. Why don't you read it sometime?"

"I tried," I said. "I couldn't stick with it. Frost is such a self-absorbed git. A talking head who imagines he's making news, not reporting it."

Nixon nodded. "Too true. But you did recognize the quote?"

"'I gave them a sword,'" I said , quoting Nixon back at himself from memory. "'And they stuck it in. And they twisted it with relish. And, I guess, if I'd been in their position I'd have done the same thing.'"

"That's right," Nixon said. "I gave my enemies the sword with which they did me in." He nodded again, and then took one last gulp from the glass, finished it off, set it down, and stood to leave. "But do you know what is an even greater mistake, and one I never made?

"It's not giving them a sword!" he said, as he began to fade away. "Whenever you say or do anything, you put weapons in the hands of your enemies and your critics. But whenever you're so afraid of those hypothetical weapons in the hands of hypothetical critics that you say and do nothing, that is a greater folly still. In fact, it goes beyond folly. It's a crime."

Nixon had become just an outline now, a rippling shape of a man between me and the bookcase. "Especially for a writer! If you are not putting your heart and soul out there on the line every time you sit down to write—if you are not every day putting new swords in the hands of your enemies and critics—then you are not doing your job, and you are not a writer: you're merely some sort of craven, timid creature that looks and smells like a writer and mimics the motions."

All that remained of him now was his voice, and it was fading quickly, as if into a vast distance.

"That is your greatest mistake, Bruce. You always try to play it safe and give no offense. But thankfully, you still have time to correct that."

His voice was just a whisper now, or less than that; the ghost of an echo of a whisper.

"I belong to history. These are your interesting times. You have a lot of good books in your collection. Maybe, now that you've retired, you can read some of them. Maybe you'll learn..."



And he was gone.

Leaving behind a filthy old glass that looked like it hadn't been cleaned in fifteen years, a small wet spot of spilled brandy on the seat cushion of the comfortable chair, and a book from my collection that I'd always intended to read but never found the time to, opened to a particular page. I was almost certain of what it would be even before I looked at it, but I picked it up and read the marked passage all the same.



"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

—Theodore Roosevelt, "The Man in the Arena"


Friday, January 30, 2009

The Friday Challenge Has Moved

Are you looking for The Friday Challenge workshop -slash- writing contest -slash- therapy group? Beginning today, you'll find it at its new permanent home:

TheFridayChallenge.com

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Final Thoughts (Part 3)

Hmm. In cleaning out all the bits and half-baked drafts and ragged ends of ideas I've accumulated during the four years I've been doing this blog, I accidentally turned up this undated note to myself, which to judge by the strata it was found in is from about three years ago.
Lucas's Law

A well-executed creative project is like great sex. Always end with a good climax and leave 'em complaining you finished too soon and begging for more, not complaining that you went on too long and begging you to stop already.

I can't imagine what I was thinking about when I wrote that.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Final Thoughts (Part 2)

KTown kvetches:
The new site looks a lot like the old site. I expected some different furniture and paint on the walls. Does anyone have an opinion on Blogspot vs. Wordpress?
I'm impressed by WordPress. It's a powerful tool that enables you to do some amazing things. There's no question but that WordPress can be used to create a gorgeous blog, as a few minutes spent snuffling around their Showcase proves.

But WordPress also requires that you download the software and install it on your own web host, and there's a learning curve, which I have neither the time or patience for right now. If I had the time, I'd definitely be looking into it further—but then, if I had the time, there are a whole lot of other things I'd also be doing.
CORRECTION: The foregoing paragraph is true for WordPress.org. WordPress.com, which I was unfamiliar with, does provide free hosting and does not require installation on your own host. Thanks to Michelle and Randy for the correction.
Blogspot, on the 'tother hand, is completely free and hosted by Google, so basically all you have to do is switch it on. Granted, the standard issue templates are pretty homely, and customizing them ranges from being a bother to a nuisance. But it is the easiest and fastest way to get a site up and running, especially if you're trying to run a blog with multiple contributors.

A third blog engine that's popular with a lot of writers I know is LiveJournal. I actually happen to have a LiveJournal account and associated dormant blog—I had to open one, in order to get permission to post a comment on a friend's site—but I don't much like it. Maybe it's just local Internet weather conditions ("And there's a big packet storm brewing up over the Dakotas, so be sure to pack your umbrella!") but whenever I use it, LiveJournal seems godawful slow, compared to just about everything except some of the more badly Java-infested U.K. tabloid sites.

As for the look and feel of the TheFridayChallenge.com: it's my site, so I picked a design that is comfortable to read with my eyes on my monitors. If you want to use tiny dark purple text on a black background on your site, go right ahead; have fun. Don't expect me to put a lot of effort into trying to read it, though.

There's another factor at work here as well. When you're writing for print, as most of us here seem to be trying to do, I believe you should look at your copy in cold, naked, unadorned text, as an editor would. As anyone who's worked in desktop publishing or marketing communications knows, sometimes a great layout is just compensation for muddled thoughts and having no clear idea of what you're trying to say.

But you know, this whole "form vs. function" argument has been raging for more than a century now and doesn't look like it's going to be resolved any time soon, so maybe it's time for you, KTown, to write a think-piece sharing your thoughts on blogsite aesthetics with the rest of us. Care to give it a try?



Meanwhile, in other news, TheFridayChallenge.com continues to lurch towards becoming fully operational. I've added The Story Morgue to the left column; anyone feeling brave enough to give it a try? Let me know and we'll work out the details.

The plan at this point is to make the posting schedule a whole lot more structured than was the Ranting Room. I'd like to run a column on Monday, and a book or fiction site review on Wednesday. The centerpiece is the Friday Challenge, of course, which, not surprisingly, posts on Friday. Saturday is open blog day: I was thinking of titling it something like, "What I Did This Week," wherein everyone is invited to share the news of what you've done this week writingwise, and especially to share any success stories or publication news you may have. Sunday, of course, is the WCA meeting, followed by the announcement of the winners of the previous week's challenge, and then, damn, whadayaknow, it's Monday again.

Does this seem like a workable schedule? If you have any thoughts or ideas, or if anybody except KTown has any suggestions for improving the look of the site, let me know.

Later,
~brb

Monday, January 26, 2009

Final Thoughts (Part 1)

Well, that's bizarre. In answer to DaveD's question, yes, I am planning to harvest the contents of this site (in the same sense that transplant surgeons "harvest" usable organs) and move selected articles into some sort of deep archives, either on the new site or on my long-neglected backup site. Fortunately blogspot now allows you to export the entire contents of your blog as one monolithic XML file, which must be a fairly new feature, as it wasn't there the last time I was looking for similar functionality.

Unfortunately, this export function does not capture any of the HaloScan comments attached to the posts. Since in many cases the comments are more interesting than the original post, I still have a bit more work ahead of me. Bizarrely, though, the export function does capture any blogspot comments attached to the posts—of which there should not be any, because I've always used HaloScan. But sure enough, when I finished downloading the XML file and opened it up to take a look at it, I discovered that over the years, this blog has been repeatedly splattered with spam comments: ads for porn sites, that sort of thing. These spam posts remained invisible to readers, because they were blogspot comments, not HaloScan comments, and the blogspot comment functionality has been disabled on this site since Day One.

But if the blogspot comment functionality was disabled, how did the spam comments get posted in the first place? Seems like there's a security hole somewhere and somebody at Google's got some 'splainin' to do...

Oh yeah, that's right, I forgot. Google never explains anything.



As regards the new site, I have two questions for you. One feature that has been requested repeatedly over the years is for some sort of "story lab," where people could post their stories and get reader feedback. I've always resisted, but perhaps the time has come to institute—no, not a story lab. Call it a story morgue. If you have a story that's so hopeless that you've given it up for dead, but you still can't figure out where it went wrong: do you think you'd be interested in posting it and asking for reader feedback?

I have to warn you, this is not something for the faint-hearted, and it could get pretty ugly. People—and especially anonymous posters, who presumably are people, although that remains to be proven—tend to become remarkably brutal when they're commenting online. Hell, they can be downright vicious.

With that caveat, do you think this is something you'd be interested in trying? Or is this something we should save for later, when we figure out how to wall off a login-required member's-only area?

The second idea I've been toying with is, oh, call it, "The Assignment Desk." I get far more ideas than I'll ever have time to develop, and the non-fiction ones in particular tend to get parked by the wayside. For example, I would love to run a good article on H. Beam Piper, the most influential writer you've probably never heard of. Would it be worthwhile to put a rolling list of ideas out there, free for the taking by whomever might feel like picking one up and running with it?

Meanwhile, the process of flushing out the buffers and cranking up the new site continues. I had about a dozen book reviews in the queue that I meant to run but never found time for. Maybe I'll just use 'em for filler on the new site.

Later,
~brb

Sunday, January 25, 2009

And the winner is...

Based on both the quantity and quality of ideas submitted, the winner of the 1/16/09 Friday Challenge is WaterBoy. So WaterBoy, come on down and claim your prize—

And then we'll fill you in on the details of you're going to run your first Friday Challenge.

As for everyone else who participated in this challenge, we just want to say Thank You! There were a lot of other great ideas in the entries and we will be contacting most of you about giving you a turn at running the Friday Challenge. But WaterBoy gets first dibs.

Thanks again for participating,
~brb

Previews of Coming Attractions

I suppose it's time now to start loosening the drawstrings and showing you that there is indeed a cat within the bag. This, friends, is the final week of The Ranting Room. Come Saturday, January 31, this site will be going dark. The content will remain online for some unspecified time to come, but after four years of doing this blog, it's time for me to hang the 'Closed' sign in the window and move on to other things.

Specifically, we're moving on to the new site, TheFridayChallenge.com. You can pop over there right now to check it out, if you like. I'm afraid there's not much to see at the moment; I meant to spend most of this past weekend enhancing the template and building basic content but instead spent it alternately napping, sipping tea, and sneezing my brains out. Sorry. I'll get the site to where I meant it to be today in another day or three.

Closing down The Ranting Room and launching a new site is not a move I make lightly. After all, I have been doing this blog for four years and there is a considerable amount of inertia behind the idea of just keeping it going.

But in the four years I have been doing The Ranting Room, it has grown to devour an ever-larger portion of my life. When I first started it, for example, I set myself an iron-clad rule that weekends were reserved for my family, and so I would only blog Monday through Friday. I believe that rule lasted nearly three months.

The Ranting Room has also grown to devour my fiction writing time, as well as my business development time. I'm never going to get Rampant Loon airborne if I continue at this rate, and worse, I'll never get that next novel finished if I keep spending my writing time on cranking out one- to two-thousand words of bloggerel daily. I'll admit that blogging is very seductive; I get a real kick from having the ability to publish my every thought instantly and begin receiving reader feedback mere minutes later.

But in the final analysis: what do you call a novelist who hasn't finished a new novel in ten years?

Trick question. You don't call him anything, because you've forgotten who he is.

I want to thank everyone who has contributed to making The Ranting Room the sort of underground cult-classic semi-success it is today; it's you, the community, who really make this thing work. I especially want to thank everyone who has contributed a guest column in the past year. I did give a lot of thought to the idea of changing the rules, opening up the posting permissions, and expanding The Ranting Room to be more like an online magazine. But in the end, I came to the conclusion that this blog is just too personal and idiosyncratic to be opened up in that way, and it would be better to bring it to an end and begin something new.

Hence TheFridayChallenge.com.

The first thing you'll notice about the new site, obviously, is the emphasis on the ongoing Friday Challenge series of writing exercises -slash- contests. This, to be honest, has grown to become the most enjoyable part of this blog for me, and I look forward to seeing it continue. However, we are going to be making some changes in the way it works, in order to make it more of an interactive and user-driven operation. The first of these changes you've probably guessed by now; we'll be using a lot more challenges posed by your fellow writers.

The second thing you'll notice about the new site is that I'm going to be using the editorial 'we' (as opposed to the Zamyatin We) a lot more. I've opened up posting permissions, invited in a bunch of people, and you'll be seeing a lot more content from other contributors. What sort of content? What would you like to see? More to the point, what would you like to write? Right now I'm looking for book reviews, short-story reviews, online fiction site reviews, articles on the craft of writing and business, and once in a while, really exceptional movie reviews. Specifically, as zanzibar said in the commentary on Firefly, I want to hear about the new up-and-coming writers you think we should be watching out for. The old-line print magazines are where fiction has gone to die and careers have gone to peter out; new writers are increasingly writing for webzines. I have my habits and fossilized patterns of thought. What are the online fiction sites you think we should be reading?

More than anything else, though, I want your success stories. Is anyone here getting published anywhere? Don't be shy; here's your chance to crow about it!

The third thing you'll notice about the new site is that we'll be experimenting with both the technology and the look and feel in the coming months. For now the site is based on blogspot, but the primary reason for making the site its own domain is to permit us to transcend that, as time and technology permit. One change I'm happy to announce right now is that we'll be using the JS-Kit comment engine, which appears to be a great improvement over HaloScan in terms of both features and reliability. However, that piece isn't plugged into the template just yet.

So, any more questions at this point? If not, then I want to close this up by saying it's been fun, and it's been really great getting to know so many of you over the course of these past four years. But now I'm looking forward to moving on to a new and different kind of fun!

Kindest regards,
~brb

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Final Afterthoughts

As the astute reader is no doubt by now asking, what the heck does any of this have to do with science fiction in general or with Firefly in particular? In the previous two posts I was trying to help you to understand the zeitgeist of the 1930s: the milieu, the Weltanschauung, the Weltschmerz, the raging theodicy, the incipient anomie, the je ne sais quoi, the all those words I paid good money to learn in college and have never had an excuse to use since so I'm going to try to use them up now that informed the shared consciousness of that small circle of would-be Weltentwicklers who created and defined this thing we call science fiction, back in the 1930s and 1940s. For in many respects science fiction today is still stuck in a sort of temporal loop, Groundhog Day-style, perpetually cycling back and forth between 1935 and 1955. As Orson Scott Card posits in Serenity Found: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon's Firefly Universe (BenBella Books, 2007, a bargain at only $17.95), while cinematically and visually the Star Wars movies are great, storywise, they're straight outa 1935.

In 1935, everybody—well, everybody in New York whose opinion mattered, anyway—everybody knew that capitalism, individualism, and libertarian democracy had failed, and it was time to try something radically new. Bellamy's steaming heap of a novel experienced a resurgence in popularity (and given that it describes life in the socialist paradise that is America in the year 2000, it is perhaps to be hoped that it won't happen again). God was if not dead then at least unemployed, and probably standing in a soup line somewhere. The Common Man, despite all the paeans and fanfares written to his nominal glory, was considered to be a proven moron, who could no more be entrusted with real freedom than with fully automatic weapons and who needed to be managed by the state cradle-to-grave for his own good. (On the face of it, this argument does make a sort of sense. After all, if you believe in the rigorous scientific accuracy and predictive validity of IQ tests, then 50% of all people are by definition of below-average intelligence.)

Remember, in the 1930s there were John Reed Clubs in cities all over America, and in 1936 and 1937 American and British intellectuals were flocking to Spain to fight on the communist side in the Spanish Civil War.
[Sidebar: By now at least a few of you are wondering what my problem is with socialism and communism. We've been through this before and I really don't have the time or patience to go through it again, so go back and read Scaling Socialism. After you've done so, I still won't feel like talking about it.]
There is a reason why there is only one science fiction publisher today known for releasing libertarian-leaning titles, and why that same publisher is regarded as a pariah whose hard SF offerings are routinely denounced by all properly thinking peoples as "war porn," "gun porn," "crypto-fascist wet dreams," and so on. There is a prevailing orthodoxy in the science fiction publishing world, and it's been firmly in place for the past 75 years.

And then there's Firefly.



Understand, by the late 1950s, Campbellian science fiction had pretty much shot its bolt. Campbell himself had become an authentic nutcase, who apparently actually believed he had psi powers, was up to his elbows in the founding of Cyantolligy and the pseudo-science behind it, and who had taken to telling people he had not flunked out of MIT back in the 1930s but rather had been kicked out, because his ideas were too threatening to scientific orthodoxy. By the late 1950s even Heinlein was on record as saying he would rather not sell at story at all than have to deal with Campbell, and also by the late 1950s, many of the magazine and book markets for original science fiction were dead or dying.

And then came Sputnik. The Space Race. The Mercury program, the Gemini program, and capping it all, Star Trek. Suddenly science fiction was a hot market category again, and the publishers all rushed to cash in, many of them by reissuing old titles they still owned all rights to but some by publishing new and original work. Concurrent with this came the New Wave of science fiction writers, whose central argument was that Campbellian science fiction was too conservative, and SF could only be rescued by tacking even more sharply to the left. Imagining themselves to be pushing the market, they got drawn along in the Space Race's cavitation, and ultimately produced a body of fictional works that were more about their personal emotional, sexual, and pharmaceutical issues than anything else.

Fifteen years later, by the 1970s, the market for print science fiction was coughing blood again. Star Trek had been canceled, although it lived on in UHF reruns. The world was suffering from a massive Vietnam War hangover, and all things even slightly militaristic were regarded with suspicion and contempt. The last few Apollo missions to the Moon were canceled, because of low ratings, lack of interest, and funding cutbacks.

Fantasy was doing well, in large part thanks to the bootleg paperback edition of The Lord of The Rings that Donald Wollheim (remember him?) put out in 1965 that was very successful with the college student hippie set and resulted in the little notice you used to see on the back of the later Ballantine edition:
"This paperback edition, and no other, has been published with my consent and co-operation. Those who approve of courtesy (at least) to living authors will purchase it, and no other."

J. R. R. Tolkien

Catering to the growing fantasy market, the publishers reissued everything they had in back inventory, and Robert E. Howard's old Conan The Barbarian stories, written back in the late 1920s and early 1930s, proved surprisingly popular. For a time it seemed the challenge was to find a new or reissued book in the SF/Fantasy section that did not have cover art featuring a bare-chested guy wearing a fur-lined jockstrap and holding an impossibly large broadsword. If Fabio had been around then he could have made a fortune posing for cover art.

And then came Star Wars. And suddenly it was 1957 all over again, and there was a vast inrush of superheated money into the sci-fi print publishing business, as many attempted to catch a piece of Lucas's coattails. And once again there was a generation of new writers who came along—my generation, this time, and there was a name they called some of us that I will not repeat, but some of our less charitable critics called us the New & Improved Wave—and once again we imagined it was our brilliance and originality that was driving the market, never realizing we were merely being drawn along in the Millennium Falcon's cavitation.

Fifteen years later, by the 1990s, the market for print science fiction was coughing blood again...



I'm sorry; I drift. It must be the cold medication. Or maybe it's just being stuck inside on this high winter afternoon, watching the long winter sunlight slant through the bare trees while the smoke from the neighbor's chimney rises slowly into the still, clear, subzero air. I meant to be making my final points about Firefly in this post. My points are these.

First, that Firefly during its brief run had some of the best and most original stories I have seen in forty-plus years of watching television and movie science fiction. It was truly a unique take on the spacefaring sci-fi future, and I still feel the loss of those stories that could have been told, had the series survived. On the great scale of things it's only a trivial loss—after all, it was just a TV series—but still, it was sad to see such a promising start blighted before it ever really got off the ground.

But secondly, and more seriously, whether by design or accident, the script for Serenity really gets it.

I used to be amused by Utopians. With life experience, I have grown to fear them. The great failing of Utopians is that they can never accept that someone else might not want to be a part of their utopian vision. Like ill-mannered tourists, they assume that if you don't agree with them, it must be because they're not explaining it simply enough, or often enough, or loudly enough, or ultimately, because you're stupid. Utopians always think achieving Utopia is simply a matter of education—and then re-education—and then coercion, legislation, litigation medication conditioning threats book-burnings eugenics surgical modifications hunting down the counter-revolutionaries killing the reactionaries genetic engineering—and ultimately all Utopians, no matter how nobly they begin, always end up at the same conclusion: that the only thing that keeps Man from building a secular heaven here on Earth is the nature of Man, therefore we must build a New and Better Man.

And for most of the history of orthodox, Campbellian and post-Campbellian science fiction, the science fiction community has largely agreed with and embraced this finding.

Utopians always begin with the best of intentions. But they always end by building their Utopia on a firm and level foundation composed of the crushed skulls of those who disagreed. And again, what I like best about the entire Firefly/Serenity creative enterprise is that, whether by accident or design, it really understands this truth and tells it.

Then, sadly, it punks out at the very end, by veering off into sheer fantasy. In the final scenes of Serenity the Operative is forced to watch the video from Miranda, and see the horror that the utopian vision he serves has unleashed. As a result, he has a change of heart, repents, and tries to make amends.

No true Utopian would ever be so weak, of course. In our world the Operative would go to his grave screaming, "We didn't use enough G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate! We didn't use it long enough! We didn't try it in its pure form! WE NEED TO KEEP TRYING UNTIL WE GET IT RIGHT!"

Here endeth the lesson.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Last Friday Challenge

There, bet that got your attention. Yes, it's true; this is the last Friday Challenge here in the Ranting Room. As of January 30, the Friday Challenge is moving to its new home. There are lots more changes in the works, too, and I'll be explaining them as best I can over the next few days.

But for tonight, let's focus on the short term. HaloScan seems to be working again, so I'd like to direct your attention to the 1/16/09 Friday Challenge, which as you may remember was to come up with a Friday Challenge. (Making it a Friday Challenge to come up with a Friday Challenge was Henry's idea, so of course, he can't win, 'cause if he did we believe he would instantly undergo some kind of recursive implosion thing and cease to exist, leaving behind only a tiny pucker in the fabric of periodic space-time to mark the place where he once stood. And we like Henry too much to permit this to happen.)

All the proposed Friday Challenges can be found in the comments attached to the 1/16/09 post, which I, using my amazing Site Owner powers, now cause to appear here. Voila!



As you read through the comments, bear in mind that you are not only selecting the Challenge you would most like to see presented, but also the person to be presenting and judging it! For that is the Special Secret Bonus Prize hinted at in the original post: whoever is selected as the winner will be allowed to post and be the primary judge of the resulting entries!

(Don't worry; we'll help you, if you feel you need help, and the prizes will still be supplied by K&B Booksellers.)

Does this sound like fun, or what? Yes, I know, at first blush, mostly like "or what," but trust me, it'll be fun, once you get into it. So even if you didn't post an entry in this challenge, kindly read, comment on, and vote for your favorites. The lucky sap winner will be announced on Sunday.

Fair Warning: as with making maple syrup, sometimes you need a lot of saps. Heh heh heh....



As for this week's Friday Challenge: one of the questions that has come up repeatedly in the four years I've been running The Ranting Room is this: Hey Bethke, for someone who talks such a good game, why don't you just bite the bullet, write a big fat fantasy brick, and make some real money?

The sad truth is, I can't. I have tried, many times. I understand that pseudo-Medieval fantasy, not science fiction, is where the market is really at these days. I appreciate how loyal the fans of fantasy are. I have seen how writing a really successful and seemingly endless series of big, fat, fantasy novels can put the kids through college and allow you to retire to your own private island. Believe me, I have tried to do it. Repeatedly.

But every time I try, I can never get more than about four pages into the story before my characters start to notice that neither indoor plumbing nor dental hygiene have been invented yet, and then I end up writing something like this:
As Sir Epididymis squirmed on his rude straw bed and sought warmth in the tattered rags of his old saddle-blanket, he caught a glimpse of the rising harvest moon through the stable window, and once again the vision of that jaundiced, pock-marked orb reminded him of his lost love, fair Princess Gwenrowundelwynne, she of the twelve teeth. Oh, happy the legions of lice who dwelt in the forest of those greasy golden tresses!

His view of beautiful Luna was eclipsed by the short and stubby form of the farmer, who like many of the peasants in North Umborgringlugrand had the gift of understanding the language of the animals.

"Sorry, guv," the farmer said, as he leaned in through the window. "I'll 'ave to ask you to move to the sty. The 'orses are complainin' about 'ow you smell."
That's this week's challenge: what happens next? I'll spot you a few more words, if you need them:
The next morning...
Well? What happens next?

As always, we're playing by the slowly sublimating rules of the Friday Challenge, and playing for whatever is behind Door #2. The deadline for entries is midnight Central time, Thursday, January 29. The entries received will be listed on the new Friday Challenge website on Friday, 1/30/09.

So I 'spose I'd better get that site finished up and running before then, eh? 'Scuse me, I gotta go hang some more sheetrock.

Later,
~brb