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Friday, April 28, 2006

A Totally Puerile Fanboy Topic

Lieutenant Uhura? Give me a break! Sure, the original Star Trek had plenty of eye-candy guest starlets (though you'll notice George Takei never got one) and in the later series both Jeri Ryan and Jolene Blaylock were both important characters and plenty easy on the eyes, but Uhura? In an era that gave us the amazing Barbara Eden, the delicious Barbara Feldon, and the goddess that calls herself Julie Newmar, you picked Nichelle Nichols as the object of your adolescent erotic fantasies?

Honestly, I do not understand you people sometimes.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Utterly Indispensible Second Banana

If Kirk was a heroic and sometimes even swashbuckling leading man, in a decade when both movies and TV were painfully short of heroes, what then of the rest of the crew? While a lot of lip service gets paid to the idea of the ensemble cast, the most memorable stories from TOS seem to be those in which the secondary characters are playing clearly recognizable roles from the Gallery of Standard Sidekicks. Spock, for example, frequently plays the part of the selfless genius sidekick who thinks of clever things the hero is too busy to notice, while McCoy most often functions as the cranky comic relief sidekick who's at his funniest when he's at his gloomiest. (Think Eeyore. "Dammit, Pooh, I'm a donkey, not a bricklayer!")

Scottie is the utility player; sometimes he's the crafty scrounger who can fix anything, sometimes he's the comic-relief drunk, and he's often at his most interesting when he's the designated arse-kicker. It comes from chivalric fantasy traditions: a truly noble hero, you see, can never stoop to certain actions, no matter how sensible, so he often has a lower-class sidekick who can do the thug's work when necessary. Kirk is far too noble to call up the Flemgonian Ambassador and say, "You have five minutes to give us back our hostages. If you don't, we will incinerate every city on your planet in alphabetical order." Scottie on the other hand can, and still provide Kirk with a scrim of deniability.

My current theory is that one of the reasons why the later ST series are not as memorable as the original is that they truly tried to achieve an ensemble cast, and thus rarely went into the library of recognizable sidekicks (except for the loathsome boy genius Wesley Crusher, but enough about him). It isn't until we get Archer, Tucker and Reid on Enterprise that we get back to the formula of heroic leading man w/ squires, and as for that...

No, I am not going to start ranting and swearing about the abyssmal last episode of Enterprise. Not here. Not how.

Instead, let's turn it over to discussion. Who is your favorite ST sidekick character, and why?

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Kirk, Piccard, Aubrey and Adama

Forty years. Six TV series. Seven hundred and twenty-six episodes, ten feature films, uncounted fetid heaps of tie-in novels, comic books, board games, lunchboxes, and God alone knows what else in merchandising. Clearly Roddenberry was on to something here, but what the heck was it? What made the original Star Trek TV series so appealing? And of more concern to writers, is it something that can be replicated and used elsewhere, or is this some strange form of magic that may be summoned only by sharecroppers tilling the fields in Roddenberry's universe?

The beginning of the answer, I think, lies in two names: James T. Kirk, as performed by William Shatner. Take either one of them out, and the whole thing falls flat.

I mean Patrick Stewart, for example, is a far better actor, and Jean-Luc Piccard was a far more credible captain. Longtime readers of this blog might remember a devastating little parody that nathan bissonette wrote last year concerning the original series' chronic tendency to put the most essential officers on the ship square in the middle of the greatest danger. Piccard, on the other hand, behaved as if he understood that extremely dangerous situations are why you have junior officers and enlisted personnel.

But Kirk is the guy with the mana, the mojo. Kirk is the one that all the others end up getting compared to. Kirk is the paradigm, the prototype, the original, the one and only -- or is he?

Which brings us to the second half of the answer: Kirk, as played by Shatner. When you take a closer look at Kirk, you find that he is the bastard great-great-grandson of Captain Horatio Hornblower, the hero of a hugely successful series of novels that C.S. Forester wrote in the 1930s and '40s. (And you might also take a moment here to compare the dramatic delivery styles of Gregory Peck and William Shatner, as Peck was the actor who played Hornblower in the movies.)

And after you're done doing that, take a moment to think about Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey...

Monday, April 24, 2006

It's Star Trek Week! (Part 1)

In case you've missed it, you won't be able to miss it for much longer. September 8th of this year marks the 40th anniversary of the premiere of the original Star Trek TV series, and in the next four to five months you may reasonably expect to be fairly carpet-bombed with Trek retrospectives, interviews, articles, anthologies, memoirs, television specials, Burger King commemorative glasses, etc., etc., etc., etc....

Ergo, while I meant to hold off on this topic for a little longer, the arrival in the mail this week of yet another solicitation to submit a paper on the cultural impact of Trek has tripped my trigger, and I am now issuing this proclamation:

It's Star Trek Week here in the Ranting Room!

This week we are going to talk about nothing but Star Trek, and you may consider this either an open invitation to express your true feelings or an open season in a target-rich environment, whichever you prefer. And with that said, I'd like to start things off with a nice, slow and easy softball right down the middle and over home plate:

Which was the best Star Trek TV series, and why?

Friday, April 21, 2006

Earth Day

My gosh, it's Earth Day again. I remember the first Earth Day in 1970, mostly because it was a good excuse to cut school and go run around outside. One of my more activist-oriented friends tried to organize a group to go pick up trash along the river, but that business was too filthy and too much like work for the majority of the Earth Day cultists, who mostly wanted to be seen publicly Caring About The Earth and demanding that The Government Should Do Something. Even today, that particular bit of the memory collage makes me think of Matthew 6.1: "Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them..."

Still, before you dismiss Earth Day as being part and parcel of the same moronic tree-hugging movement that spawned "Captain Planet," or before you give in to that urge to rev up your H2 and plow into the next mob of misanthropic marching Gaiaists you see, know this: it was needed.

I remember what it was like when cities and factories dumped their effluent straight into the skies and waters. I remember when you couldn't see a mile in the daytime in Los Angeles because the air was so thick with smog that your eyes burned. I remember being in harbors that looked and smelled like truck-stop toilets that hadn't been flushed or cleaned in a week, because municipalities dumped raw sewage straight into the local rivers. I remember not needing a compass to navigate in the daytime: you could be twenty miles offshore and still fix your location just by spotting the plumes of smoke from the coal-fired power plants.

I remember years when the beaches were closed all summer long because of water pollution. I remember when the center of Lake Erie was a biological dead zone and rivers in Ohio were so polluted they sometimes caught fire. I remember being out in deep water and coming across rafts of dead fish that some caprice of the wind and waves had pushed together. Try to imagine that: a ribbon of dead fish, so thick it almost looked as if you could walk on it, 50 yards wide and three miles long. Try to imagine the smell...

No, bad idea, don't do that; at least not before breakfast.

But know this: sure, the EPA is an agency out of control, the Endangered Species Act has been interpreted way too broadly, and Earth Day has become an occasion for tree-hugging morons to express their deep hatred for we hairless primates who occupy a somewhat prominent place in the global ecology. Sure, the behavior of the Gaiaists in our schools approaches the establishment of an official government religion. Sure, the whole idea of putting those corrupt clowns at the UN in charge of protecting the global biosphere scares the bejeebers out of me.

But there was a time when Earth Day was desperately needed, and the movement that it spawned has done some wonderful things. So I'm thinking that we need now to reclaim Earth Day, and make it a celebration of all the ecological good that has been accomplished in the past 36 years.

I'm thinking free-range buffalo steaks on the grill tonight sounds just about right...

Thursday, April 20, 2006

...featuring Dick Dale and at least two Original Del Tones!

They've announced the music lineup for this summer's Taste of Minnesota festival, and I must admit I'm kinda shaking my head. The list of featured acts includes:

Alice Cooper
The Hollies
Herman's Hermits
Savoy Brown
Gary "Dream Weaver" Wright
Davy Jones (from The Monkees)
Al Jardine (from The Beach Boys)
Marty Balin (from Jefferson Starship)
Roger Hodgson (from Supertramp)
David Cassidy (from The Partridge Family)
John Ford Coley (without England Dan)
Robbie Vee (Bobby Vee's son)
Luke Zimmerman (Bob Dylan's nephew)
Transit Authority (a Chicago tribute band)
Rubber Soul (a Beatles tribute band)
Tumblin' Dice (a Rolling Stones tribute band)
E.L.No (an Electric Light Orchestra tribute band)
...and many, many more!

While I question whether the world really needs an E.L.O. tribute band, and it's really kind of pathetic when you have to bill yourself by the band you used to belong to or adopt your one hit single as your nickname (which is why I still resist various people's efforts to christen me Bruce "Cyberpunk" Bethke), when we work our way down the list to Bob Dylan's nephew -- Bob Dylan's nephew?!?!?!

Still, the lineup does bring a small but nostalgic smile to my face. I remember this one time back in '77, when Dr. John, Gary Shea, and I went to see Supertramp in St. Paul. Dr. John had brought along a quart of hard liquor -- Jose Cuervo Gold, I think -- to get in the concert mood, but when he saw that they were confiscating glass bottles at the door he chugged the entire thing while standing in line. The natural result of this action was that while he made it through the warmup act's set okay, about two or three songs into Supertramp's show he put on the most spectacular display of projectile vomiting I have ever seen...

How about you? What's your best music-related embarasssing behavior story that you can still tell in public?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Alien Worlds

The New York Times this week is carrying the first chapter of Tony D'Souza's new novel, Whiteman. What I like about this one is that in the space of 2,000 words D'Souza manages put his protagonist right smack in the midst of a world far more alien than anything you'll find in a month of Star Trek novelizations:
"She rolled her eyes from the weight of the load and planted her hands on her hips, which were wrapped in a wildly colored bolt of cloth depicting cellular phones. The cloth was a pagne celebrating the arrival of Nokia to our stretch of West Africa two weeks ago, and many women in Séguéla were wearing them, were tying their infants snugly onto their backs with them. Coups and guinea worm and female circumcision and HIV and mass graves in Abidjan full of the Muslim north's political youth, and the women had turned traditional dances all night around bonfires to celebrate the arrival of the cell phone. This was what West Africa was about: priorities."
They say your first novel is always an autobiography, which is why my first novel remains safely buried, but also explains why D'Souza, a former Peace Corps volunteer who spent three years living in West Africa, has written a novel about an employee of a fictitious international aid organization who lives in West Africa. For me this is probably a "library" book, not a "buy" book, as the extended description on D'Souza's site suggest that it starts out promising and then goes wandering off into romantic potboiler territory, but then again that may merely be Harcourt's marketing copy.

Anyone here already familiar with this book, or with anything else by Tony D'Souza?

Monday, April 17, 2006

Another dream is scuttled

From Reuters:
U.S. yacht said attacked by pirates off Yemen

ROME (Reuters) - A U.S.-flagged yacht with three people aboard was attacked by pirates wielding rocket launchers off the coast of Yemen, the Italian Coastguard said on Sunday after an Italian freight ship reported a distress call.

"Around 9.45 a.m. (0745 GMT) an Italian container ship, the Jolly Platino called to say it had heard an SOS message from an American sailing vessel, the Tir Na Nog," an official from the Rome headquarters of the Coastguard told Reuters.

The Italians informed U.S. authorities in the region of the incident which happened some 25 miles off the Yemen coast. The official said two U.S. and one Dutch military vessel in the area had been told of the attack but he did not know how any rescue attempts were progressing.

Commander Jeff Breslau, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain, said: "Coalition forces are investigating the incident." He gave no further details.

What's the line from the Marine Corps hymn? "From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, we will participate in investigations of alleged incidents as part of a UN-authorized multinational peacekeeping coalition..."

Never mind that. Those of you think who of me as a Minnesota writer might not realize that I am Not From Around Here, as the Minnnesotans say, and there are times I get profoundly homesick for the sight of that big blue wet thing and the sounds of seagulls and breakers on the beach. I'm the sort of guy who from time to time buys a copy of Wooden Boat magazine and reads it with the same enthusiasm other middle-aged men reserve for Playboy, who grew up thrilling to Robin Lee Graham's articles in National Geographic, and who always harbored a secret dream of someday buying an Alden schooner and spending a few years sailing around the world, writing articles about and taking pictures of the exotic places I'd go and the fascinating people I'd meet.

That dream is a fantasy from another world, it seems.


Sunday, April 16, 2006

I rarely talk about sports, but...

I know I said that I don't blog on weekends because the time belongs to my family, but on this particular Sunday afternoon, being stuffed with a huge holiday dinner and finding the weather too raw to go outside, I ended up on the couch with remote in hand, and --

Tell me, honestly: is there any so-called sport more pathetic than arena football?

Look, as long as we're going to create a sport that's almost like football for the mutual benefit of the couch-potato TV audience that's going through NFL withdrawal, the ex-college jocks who weren't good enough to make the majors, and the TV networks that are desperate for broadcast content, let's do it right. I hereby propose the creation of the SNFL: the Silly Nerf Football League.

First off, we'll make 'em play indoors with a Nerf football, preferably one of the whistling ones with tail fins. Secondly, the real football uniforms need to go: make their suits look like bad sci-fi movie prop body armor, with lots of big blocks, plates, hoses, and foam rubber spikes. (Can't you just see a team that's required to take the field in full Creature from the Black Lagoon costumes, sans flippers?) Third, none of this scoring touchdowns nonsense. The player catching the ball in or running the ball into the end-zone is required to perform a one-minute song or victory dance after doing so, and a panel of celebrity judges awards the touchdown a score of from 0 to 7 points based on the artistic quality of the post-touchdown performance. Fourth -- well, I'm trying to find a way to work a piñata into the game. I think that'll be the tie-breaker: instead of going into overtime, we'll lower a huge piñata full of Jolly Ranchers over the mid-field line, and the victory is awarded to whichever team scoops up the most candy and gets it to the scale on their side of the field. (Tripping will be allowed.)

But I'm open for suggestions. What do you think this brilliant new concept in sports entertainment needs?

Friday, April 14, 2006

Iran, Easter, and Alternate History

This is what it's all about, folks. For the benefit of my non-Christian friends, Christianity is not about the cargo cult of Christmas, nor does it have anything to do with hard-boiled eggs, rabbits, or jelly beans. The Messiah did not come to Earth to bring candy and toys for good little goys, nor did He come here to deliver some mushy and vaguely touchy-feely message about holding hands with your neighbor and singing Kumbayah. These four days, beginning Thursday and continuing through Sunday, are when we remember that the Word became Flesh to deliver the good news about eternal life, and His final lesson was expressed by His suffering the absolute worst that this world has to offer, and yet rising above it.

The Resurrection is critical. Without the Resurrection, there is no Christianity.

But enough sermonizing. I'm going to be pretty busy for the next few days, so here's the idea I want to leave you to think about:

Beginning in 597 BC (the whole process actually took about 16 years) the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar II leveled Jerusalem and took the surviving population back to Babylon (present-day Iraq) as slaves. When the Persians (present-day Iranians) under Cyrus the Great conquered the Babylonians in 537 BC, they freed the Hebrews and allowed them to return to Palestine, and about 40,000 chose to do so. This period, called the Babylonian Captivity, is when the Hebrew script replaced the earlier Israelite script, the Torah became codified, and Judaism became the religion we recognize today.

Now, while the Persian Empire was officially polytheistic, one of the reasons why Cyrus freed the Hebrews and sent them back to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem is that he was a Zoroastrian, and Zoroastrianism bears strong resemblances to Judaism. Both are monotheistic religions that worship a single Creator; both see this world as a battleground between the forces of good and evil where mortals have free will and will be judged in the afterlife based on the choices they've made in this life; and both await the coming of a living Messiah (to the Zoroastrians, Saoshyant) who will bring about the final victory of good, the end of history, and an eternal kingdom of peace and happiness. Sound familiar?

Fast-foward 57 years. In 480 BC Cyrus's grandson, Xerxes I, led the Persian army and navy into the disastrous Battle of Salamis. While the Persians outnumbered the Greeks by a factor of better than three-to-one, the Greeks outsmarted the Persians, avoiding a land battle and luring them into a naval battle in a narrow straight where their superior numbers could not be brought to bear. The slaughter of the Persians was terrible, and Salamis became the high-water mark of their empire, after which they became familiar with retreat. A century and a half later it was the Greek, Alexander the Great, who conquered the Persian Empire, finished off what was left of Cyrus's dynasty, and burned the sacred scrolls of the Zoroastrians.

Historians generally consider Salamis to be one of the key turning points in the history of western civilization, as after this battle the Greek city-states were free to develop their own cultures, which led to Athenian democracy, the Roman Republic, and -- well, we don't know the end of the story of western civilization yet. But what if...

What if the Persians had won the Battle of Salamis? What if the Greek city-states had been conquered and Athenian democracy strangled in the cradle? What if Jesus of Nazareth had been born, not in a troublesome backwater of the Roman Empire, but in a peacable satrapy of the Persian Empire, where the Hebrews were respected citizens and the religion of the emperors was eagerly awaiting the arrival of Saoshyant?

There. That is an alternate history idea that should keep your head spinning for a few days!

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Where have all the strivers gone? (Part 2)

It's officially Spring in Minnesota.

I go through this every year. I promise myself, "Not until May 1st," because I know the weather up here isn't really nice enough to get away with it. Then I start saying, "Well, okay, maybe April 15th," because of like, global warming and all. And then one morning I wake up, and take the dogs out for their morning walk, and the sun is shining, and the trees are budding, and the birds are singing, and the skies are just so amazingly blue that I simply can't wait until 8 A.M. rolls around and I can call my insurance agent on the phone and shout, "TAKE THE TRIUMPH OFF WINTER STORAGE COVERAGE, I'M PUTTING IT BACK ON THE ROAD!"

And fifteen minutes after that I'm blasting down the 10th Street freeway entrance ramp at Warp 9, and the tuned exhaust header hits that resonant peak at around 3800 rpm...


Uh, excuse me, where was I? Oh yeah, I was going to talk about strivers this morning. Okay, short answer is, there's no shortage of strivers. You just won't find them in serious literature anymore. You'll find them aplenty in movies, usually about urban youth determined to make it big with nothing more than some raw talent and a hatful of dreams: e.g., Eight Mile Road, Get Rich or Die Tryin' -- (Could there possibly be more of a "striver" title than that last one?)

You'll find them in the engineering and computer science departments of colleges, where a couple of buddies are trying to figure out, not how to get blind drunk and laid in Fort Lauderdale, but how to make something that will become the next Google.

You'll find them on construction sites, where some guy with a truckful of tools, a circular saw, and both his thumbs is trying to figure out how to hire some help and double his business next year.

You'll even find them in suburban basements, where millions of kids like The Kid and his friends have already sussed that if you score more bolts now, you can buy weapons and ship upgrades and score even more bolts on the next level.

So why don't we find strivers in contemporary serious literature?

Me, I blame The Great Gatsby, but it's probably goes older and runs deeper than that...

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Venue: Writers & Coffee Shops

Because a couple of people have asked: I blog daily, Monday through Friday, and post at 7am local time. I do read every reader comment that is posted on my site, though generally not until fairly late in the evening. Weekends belong to my family: I don't write for the blog and usually don't even read the comments until late Sunday night. I've given up trying to game Feedblitz; I write best in the morning, but Feedblitz generates its feed at around midnight, so the email feed is always going to be one day behind. C'est le guerre.

When I skip a weekday, it's not because I've run out of hot air -- if anything, I've got a large backlog of topics in the wings -- but because I've run out of time, as I'm in the process of doing right now. And with that said, here's the item I meant to post yesterday:

Lattes and Laptops

Here's an interesting one from the St. Paul Pioneer Press: a lengthy article about writers who write in coffee shops. On the one hand it's an interesting subcultural snapshot (and comes with two nice sidebar articles on where to find good coffee shops and wifi hotspots in St. Paul); on the other, I personally find it interesting that it was written by movie critic Chris Hewitt, and not book critic Mary Ann Grossman. But on the gripping hand, the article mentions quite a few writers by name: Sharyn Morrow, Theresa Alberti, Judith Yates Borger, Suzy Rogers...

Not to be rude, but have any of you heard of any of these people? Read anything by them? Can recommend any titles by them? Writers seem to fall into two categories: those who are known for being writers and for talking about what they're writing (or hoping to write, or intending to write), and those who are known for what they've written and had published. Anyone know which category the folks mentioned in this article fall into?

Monday, April 10, 2006

Where have all the strivers gone?

I trust you're all at least skimming the New York Times Books section on a semi-regular basis. If not, you should be. True, the site requires a free registration, but if you don't like giving out your email address there's always

I bring this up because I rather liked this piece in yesterday's Times, Where Have All The Strivers Gone?, by Joseph Finder. In it Finder examines the question of why the Ambitious Young Man Who Wants to Make Something of Himself, a character type which once roamed western literature in vast numbers, has all but gone extinct in 20th century literature.

I have my own theory, but before I post it: what's yours?

Friday, April 07, 2006

It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine

Chris Naron asks a good question for Friday:
What I want to know is why there's rarely ever good rock music in futuristic dystopias. It's always jazz, classical or electronic boing boing music. Are we to believe an f'ed up world won't have some kick arse metal?
I think music is one of those areas, like religion or food, where most SF writers only know enough about it to embarass themselves. Either they assume things in the future will remain pretty much frozen as they are now, in which case we get the Executive Officer of the Enterprise playing Dixieland jazz on a trombone (a trombone?! Why not a sackbutt or a krummhorn while he's at it?), or else they still haven't recovered from the 1960s and feel obliged to write lines like, "Ars Narklefuss was the swingingest qwonzitar player on the whole South Coast froodinhop scene." Or else, worse, they really haven't recovered from the 1960s, and write stories that are thinly disguised paeans to Jim Morrison and Grace Slick.

Most writers can't envision the future of music, because they have no grasp of its past. (Did you know that Bach's minuets were the hot dance tunes of their day? Did you know that the Romans had hydraulic pipe organs in their coliseums, and some putz was at the console playing the Roman equivalent of "Charge!" and "We are the Champions" as the score went Lions 6, Christians 0?) Heck, even musicians can't envision the future of music, because it's a recipreversexcluson. As soon as some pretentious git stands up and says, "I am the future of music!" we all know, well, his career is over.

As proof that it's impossible to envision the future of music, I challenge you to find me one work of fiction from before 1980 that describes today's hip-hop scene. (Hey, there's a story idea for you: a secret government program is launched to send an agent back through time to kill Vanilla Ice, so that there will never be an Eminem...)

In any case, right now I'm trying to think of just one example of a story set in the future in which the music is both important to the story and not embarassing, and I'm having trouble. Brad Denton's Wrack and Roll? Nah. Tim Power's Dinner at Deviant's Palace? Nah. Norman Spinrad's Little Heroes? Ack! Ack ack!

Can you name one? Please?

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Highly Recommended Reading

Found on Dan Simmon's website. If you haven't read this one yet, you should. Now.

And while you're at it, check out his Writing Well articles.

We're Doomed! (Part 3)

Bartleby takes a stab at yesterday's question:
Simple - optimism isn't as interesting as Doomsday. Even Christianity, which is pretty optimistic (Heaven, et al), has a doomsday for the world.

Not only that, but war sells. The History Channel doesn't show war flicks 24x7 because people find war to be dull. It's because people find war to be absolutely fascinating.

Peace is nice, but it's boring. How long would your book be if all you had to say that everything was idyllic, there was no fighting, and the problems of economics were completely solved?

Okay, I'll buy that much of the argument. War is more interesting than peace; conflict is more interesting that congruence; change is more interesting than stasis. That's why we have "crime" stories and not "law-abiding nice people" stories, or at the very least "people with terribly messed up romantic lives" novels instead of "happily married monogamous couple" novels.

But why does SF so often seem to require not merely the level of violence common to heroic fantasy, but the near-complete destruction of civilization and the near-annihilation of mankind? Is it merely a matter of taking something that's already fascinating (war) and turning up the volume? Is it simply a failure of imagination? Is it too much work to imagine what things might be like if western civilization continues to evolve for another 500 years, and therefore much easier to envision a world in which some drastic historical discontinuity has occurred and we've been bombed back to stone knives, bear skins, tribal rituals and rap music?

Or is this recurring destruction-and-rebirth theme evidence of some deeply latent misanthropic streak; some profound dissatisfaction with the world as it is today, which expresses itself as a wish to imagine that we can reset history to some earlier checkpoint and re-run it again -- only this time, we'd do it right, because people like us would be in charge?

Is the truth of the matter that hard-core sci-fi fans have a lot more in common with the hard-core eco-Luddites, or even that lunatic professor down in Texas who wants to exterminate 90-percent of the human population, than we'd really care to admit?

Or is it just that we all read The Swiss Family Robinson at an impressionable age?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

We're Doomed! (Part 2)

Boz makes a very good point:
The "complete-destruction" qualifier really limits it for me. You've mentioned the only two I can think of in Hitchhiker's and On the Beach. Hitchhiker's wins that hands down. I read Shute as a requirement in high school. I think I was depressed for a week afterwards.

Now if you're talking "almost-complete-destruction" then Lucifer's Hammer wins...

That's a critical word: almost. I think this is one of the key ways in which SF differs from all other literary forms. Not only does it afford the writer the opportunity to posit a deity-free Apocalypse, thus eliminating the need to follow the script laid out in Revelations, it also offers the possibility of a survivable Apocalypse, after which it may even be possible to reboot humanity and build a better world. If this idea holds some appeal for you -- if it's in any way possible for you to look forward with some hope for a better future -- then by all means, write SF, even if it's another Lucifer's Hammer.

If, on the other hand, you truly believe that the past was better, now is as good as it's ever going to get, and the future can only be bleak and dismal or worse, you're probably best off sticking to looking in the rearview mirror and writing pseudo-Medieval fantasy. As Boz's comment illustrates, future generations of high school students will thank you for doing so.

As for me, I must confess to feeling a certain Doomsday Fatigue. I've lived through 50-plus years of end of the world hysteria, starting with learning to Duck and Cover and followed by the New Ice Age panic, the ecological catastrophe panic, The Population Bomb panic (which as you may note did not explode and kill hundreds of millions of people in the 1970s), the unstoppable Soviet juggernaut panic (someone really should tell all those Survivalists living in the mountains out west that 1980 finally got here and it's okay to come out now), the Nuclear Winter panic, the endless war in Central America panic, the American Theocracy panic, the Global Economic Collapse of 1989, etc., etc., etc., etc...

The one lesson I've taken away from all this is that both conservatism and liberalism are Doomsday Cults. They differ only in the names of the particular sins they believe will bring about Doomsday.

But tempting as it is, I don't want to veer off in a political direction. Instead, the question I'm interested in exploring today is this: Why are we far more willing to listen to Doomsday prophets than optimists? Why has a story of impending catastrophe and destruction been easier to sell for at least the last 3,000 years? Is it simply a matter of fear of loss being a more effective selling motivator than desire for gain, or is there something deeper and weirder at work here?

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

We're Doomed! (Part 1)

It's the stereotypical post-WWII sci-fi story. The human race is wiped out by an atomic war. The sole survivors are an American astronaut and a Soviet cosmonaut, both in orbit in their separate spaceships. Diminishing oxygen supplies force them both to land on some remote tropical island that's the only place untouched by the war, and as the American climbs out of his ship, .45 in hand, he thinks, "Well at least the last man on Earth will be U.S. Air Force Major Adam Adamski!" He takes careful aim at the Russian, but in that last moment of hesitation before he pulls the trigger, she removes her space helmet, to reveal that she is a stunningly beautiful blonde, and says in thickly accented English, "My name is Captain Eva Evanovitch. I want to make babies and repopulate the Earth."

He says, "Too bad, I'm gay," and shoots her anyway.

Just kidding!

But seriously; the field of sci-fi is simply cluttered with end-of-the-world Adam & Eve stories. Every writer has written at least one; even Jules Verne's last known story was "The Eternal Adam." For some reason we in the field of sci-fi simply love to destroy the world, and then offer humanity a hope for a fresh start. (Except for Nevil Shute, who destroyed the world and then offered absolutely no hope, which is why no one is talking about doing a big-budget remake of "On the Beach" at the moment.)

I'm not interested in exploring the pathology of Jeremiads; that's a topic for another time. Instead, I want to put forth this question: what is your favorite end-of-the-world complete-destruction-of-humanity story? Right now it's a toss-up between Greg Bear's The Forge of God and Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but I'm open to suggestions.

What's your nominee, and why?

Monday, April 03, 2006

How to Write 500 Words Daily

Bane asks:
What do you consider a good daily clip for words written per day, assuming all is going well, and you have uninterrupted writing time?

And hours per day, too.

I'm not talking a Stephen King pace here, or Thomas Harris either, for that matter. Just a good, comfortable pace.

I just calculated that if you wrote 555 words a day, for six months straight, you'd have 100,000 words. That does not sound like 'reasonable pace' to me, but what do I know?

The answer to the latter question is, "Probably a lot more than you realize." As for the former: yes, ~500 words per day is not an unreasonable pace.

This question has come up before, and I said most of what I had to say in the blogbit, Zelnorm for Writers. To amplify on that, though: the key for me is not so much how long I write, but when I write. I used to be a night owl, but now I find my best writing time is first thing in the morning. If I can wake up before the kids and my wife; hit the bathroom, throw the dogs outside, and start the coffee pot; and then get straight to writing before I do absolutely ANYTHING else, I have no trouble at all hitting my 500-word goal, and usually do closer to 1,000. And I do this in about an hour.

Contrariwise, at 5pm, I can spend an entire hour agonizing over a ten-word sentence.

A couple of other things are germane, though. I'm one of those people who creates and edits in two distinctly separate phases, so we're talking 500-1,000 words of raw content which will be reshaped later, AFTER I've written, "The End." Also, I have to resort to a number of dodges in order to sustain this pace. Sometimes I compose in longhand; with my handwriting, two pages on a legal pad is about 500 words. Other times I work on an old 486 DOS laptop, in which case two screens full of 80x24 ASCII text makes about 500 words.

The two things I absolutely can not do are look at the morning paper before I get to writing, or work on an Internet-connected machine. Either one switches me from output to input mode, and it's hard to recover the momentum. In particular, if I do the latter, I am especially unable to resist the temptation to check the morning news feeds, peek at a favored blog or two, and check my email. And once I've opened up my email client -- well, email is the mind-killer...