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Thursday, August 31, 2006

An' 'ere's to Tommy Atkins!

Kipling had the bad luck to write poetry with recognizable meter, rhyme, and point just when the field was about to undergo a tectonic shift and spew forth the twin monsters, Dadaism and Surrealism. Compare and constrast, say, Gunga Din, to William Carlos Williams' most famous work:
This is just to say
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

In comparison, Kipling's poetry is unquestionably lyric, as in, lyrics. So here's today's million-dollar idea for you: put together a thrash-metal band, make the frontman some ugly screecher with a Cockney accent, and bash together some songs using Kipling's poetry as the words. You'd be big. Really big.

In the meantime, I'll have to content myself with the thought that Kipling will be remembered and read long after Lawrence Ferlinghetti is dead, gone, and forgotten, and the knowledge that if I ever get put in charge of developing a curriculum, Tommy will be required reading. No, not the rock opera. This one.

I WENT into a public-'ouse to get a pint o' beer,
The publican 'e up an' sez, "We serve no red-coats here."
The girls be'ind the bar they laughed an' giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an' to myself sez I:

O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, go away";
But it’s "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play,—
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play.

I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
They gave a drunk civilian room, but 'adn't none for me;
They sent me to the gallery or round the music-'alls,
But when it comes to fightin', Lord! they'll shove me in the stalls!

For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, wait outside";
But it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide,—
The troopship's on the tide, my boys, the troopship's on the tide,
O it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide.

Yes, makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap;
An' hustlin' drunken soldiers when they're goin' large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin' in full kit.

Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, 'ow's yer soul?"
But it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll,—
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll.

We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An' if sometimes our conduck isn't all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don't grow into plaster saints;

While it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, fall be'ind",
But it's "Please to walk in front, sir", when there's trouble in the wind,—
There's trouble in the wind, my boys, there's trouble in the wind,
O it's "Please to walk in front, sir", when there’s trouble in the wind.

You talk o' better food for us, an' schools, an' fires, an' all:
We'll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.

For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool—you bet that Tommy sees!

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Whatever happened to Brother Rudyard?

So how did Rudyard Kipling go from being the most successful writer in the English language to being best remembered today for his children's books? How could he go from winning the Nobel Prize for literature, and being popular enough to turn down a knighthood and the title of Poet Laureate of the British Empire; from writing what was at one time the most-anthologized poem in the world, If—; to being somewhere between a joke and an embarassment to today's literati?

Part of it, I think, is that the irony-challenged continue to read poems like The White Man's Burden as completely straight-faced odes to racism and imperialism, when the sense of irony present in his other works suggests that Kipling meant quite the opposite. Another part is that the early 20th century saw the ascendancy of what C.S. Lewis called the "men without chests," and we're still suffering the fallout from that today.

Kipling's biggest mistake, though, was that he celebrated what used to be called the manly virtues — strength, courage, honor, and patriotism — and it seems that except in tiny and unfashionable backwaters like science fiction, the literary world just didn't have much use for those things in the 20th century.

After all, as Lakshmi Chaudhry reminds us in this article, Hemingway actually wrote chick-lit.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Have you Kipled lately?

Papapete asks:
Why is it that sci-fi authors who write military/heroic fiction are almost always Kipling fans? I like his stuff a lot, but he's fallen out of favor with the "literary" crowd. However, you can't pick up a military or heroic sci-fi novel without seeing his influence all over it.
I have no idea what you're talking about. As proof, here's an unretouched photo of the bookshelf over my desk.

Oh, wait...

I suppose part of it is growing up on The Jungle Book and Just-So Stories. I still remember asking my mom to explain what a 'Stute Fish is, and wishing I could find a wild mongoose so I could befriend my own Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. And what little boy hasn't dreamed of living like a savage in the wild and being raised by wolves? After all, that's why the Boy Scouts call 'em Wolf Cubs; because Baden-Powell was deliberately and with Kipling's consent lifting memes and riffs from The Jungle Book and Kim. (Why do you think the name "Akela" keeps cropping up all over the place in Cub Scouting?)

A definite part of it is that Kipling lived a long life, had a prolific career, and a century ago was writing and publishing stories that were unequivocally hard sci-fi. Both John Campbell and Robert Heinlein idolized Kipling -- Campbell apparently knew him -- and if you're doing military/heroic hard sci-fi, who are you to argue with Campbell and Heinlein? As well, Kipling (along with Stevenson) practically invented the narrative arc of the bildungsroman as told through the story of a young boy thrown into an alien environment and forced to mature and survive (e.g., Captains Courageous), which apparently was a recapitulation of his own life story, and heck, even I used that one, without intending to, in Cyberpunk.

Kipling is also credited with having invented the technique of indirect exposition: of revealing an alien landscape or culture through the eyes and words of characters living in it, rather than through an omniscient narrator's exposition, which Campbell shortened to "show, not tell," and we're all living with that one on a daily basis.

But as for why Kipling has fallen out of favor with the "literary" crowd; well personally, I think it was because he insisted on writing poems with meter and rhyme...

But what do you think? And what's your favorite Kipling story, book, or poem?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Trying to define heroism

Part of the problem with writing heroic fiction is that heroism has been deeply discounted in recent decades, mostly by sloppy newspaper writers and PR shills. Everybody is a hero, at least according to their autobiography, and so you get things like sports heroes, victim heroes, and the bane of fiction, action heroes.

Sorry, no; the guy who hits the ball into the upper deck and wins the World Series may be a great athlete, and he may even be an icon to his fans, but he's no hero. Likewise the woman who was told she would never walk again, who then rose from her hospital bed and won the Marathon; an amazing testimony to the strength of the human spirit, yes, but not a hero. The pretty young girl who contracted some loathsome disease and died slowly and painfully, but kept smiling to the end? A brave and tragic figure, no doubt, and perhaps an admirable example of courage and stoic grace, but not a hero.

Clara Maass, on the other hand; an Army nurse stationed in Cuba, where yellow fever was claiming hundreds of lives, who volunteered to be exposed to suspected yellow fever mosquitoes so that doctors could study the course of the disease and possibly find a cure: yes, definitely hero material. The fact that she died as a result makes her a tragic hero, but suffering and death, the stock in trade of those who would heroes of all victims, is not required.

Action heroes are probably the most misnamed of all. Heroes are not fearless. Being fearless is usually the result of being either ignorant or arrogant. It's no accident that the great fatal flaw of so many classical tragic heroes is hubris. Any "action hero" character ever played by Stallone or Schwarzenegger misses the boat. Heroes do not live to crush their enemies, see them driven before them, and hear the lamentations of their women. Any group of thugs can do that. Nazis and Klansmen do that.

The Coast Guard swimmer who jumps out of a helicopter into a raging sea to rescue someone who's boat has sunk in a storm? Hero. The cops and firefighters who went up the stairwells in the World Trade Center? Heroes.

The essential quality of heroism, I think, is that of being worried, concerned, even brown-shorts scared, but still being willing to put your life on the line and do something that desperately needs to be done, because if you don't do it right now, other people are going to suffer and die.

And that, I think, is why fiction writers find it so much easier to create cocky and quip-spouting action heroes rather than real heroes. Because, frankly, most of us have at least somewhat larger-than-average egos, such that we're willing to make our families suffer in order to satisfy our creative urges. We're not used to sacrificing our own desires for the good of others.

'scuse me. I gotta go spend some time with my kid.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Trying to understand heroism

Perhaps pro-military was the wrong word. What I'm trying to understand is why heroic stories *only* seem to work as fantasy or history. Part of it I understand; I've talked to a lot of combat vets. I've talked with men who landed on Normandy on D-Day and men who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. I know that The Longest Day is history-based fantasy and Saving Private Ryan is gruesomely realistic fiction. I know a Marine Corps vet who landed at Inchon and came home from Korea with three purple hearts; all he'll say about it now is, "I seen some shit," and then, if you press him on the subject, he'll start talking about all his friends who didn't make it back.

When I was a kid, we had a family friend who was a Navy landing craft man attached to a Marine division in WWII. His war record reads like an itinerary of the Hellholes of the Pacific. He received a list of citations and decorations as long as your arm, but the only time I ever heard him talk about the war was one time when he was drunk, and then he started to relate the story of the time his landing craft was sunk by artillery and he spent three days on the beach as a temporary Marine rifleman, pinned down by Japanese fire, watching the bodies of his friends bloat up in the tropical heat and wash in and out on the tide...

He was a man who chain-smoked Camels, drank cheap hard liquor straight, and died younger than I am now. It seems I've known a lot of combat vets who chose that exit.

But never mind that; here's my question. My generation grew up on tales of Alvin York, Audie Murphy, Horatius at the bridge, and Davy Crockett at the Alamo. Then we lost our virginity in Vietnam and came home to write books like The Forever War, after which we proceeded to crawl back through American history and deconstruct and debunk all our heroes. (The notion of Crockett dying at the Alamo to keep Texas from being part of Mexico seems particularly ironic these days.)

But as I get older, and as I learn more, I discover that I am *not* one of these peace-at-any-price war-never-solved-anything sorts. Yeah, war never solved anything important: only Naziism, Fascism, Japanese Imperialism, negro slavery, Napoleonic Imperialism, Moslem Imperialism (twice)...

But how do you convince your sons that, horrible and tragic as it is, there are some things worth fighting for, and that can only be protected and saved by fighting for them? Especially, how do you do this after you've rejected all of your own history?

Is putting a heroic speech in the mouth of Samwise Gamgee really the only way to do it these days?

Monday, August 21, 2006

On Military Fiction

Fitz has made a very important point that I think deserves to be pursued further. (Aristotle's Poetics have waited 2,300 years. They can wait a little longer.) Given that most writers are strong individualists who have trouble checking their egos at the door and becoming team players, does this explain the shortage of good military fiction?

There are plenty of anti-military satires written by combat veterans -- M*A*S*H and Catch-22 come immediately to mind -- and even more anti-military novels written by REMFs and people who never served, but based on the interviews I've done and the histories I've read, most pro-military novels fall into the categories of either heroic fantasy or war porn. Tom Clancy is one of the few who seems to get it right, in books like Clear and Present Danger, but even he has trouble keeping it credible and honest.

It's easy to come up with examples of heroic fantasy gussied up in contemporary or high-tech drag; e.g., books in which the story line is that the brilliant, clever, and darn near invincible hero is romping around the countryside (world/universe) on his horse (tank/starship), brandishing his sword (machine gun/laser blaster), accompanied by a bevy of selfless and expendable squires and minions (clones/redshirts/enlisted men), and fighting ever-bigger battles for ever-bigger stakes (and occasionally fighting minor skirmishes with his own incompetent and clearly inferior "superiors"), until he at last meets and defeats the Great Big Bad Guy in solo combat. It's the classic "orgasm" plot structure, which is why we apply the term war porn when the author's emphasis seems to be on describing with relish just how many and in which imaginative and gruesome ways the hero collects scalps.

But can anyone cite some examples of good, honest, and realistic pro-military fiction?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

F'ball vs Bessbol (cont'd)

Okay, it's time for some sweeping stereotypes and blunts truths. First off, let's face it: we writers, as a group, are not generally the most athletic sorts of people. We tend to be scrawny and bookish as kids and overweight and sedentary as adults. Nonetheless, most of us have at least some mildly pleasant memories of being on the Cub Scout softball team as a kid, or of that one summer we played on the church kittenball team as a teenager, or of just playing a little pick-up stickball in the streets, back in the golden days of childhood. This is what makes it possible for us to imagine that if we just worked at it a little harder, and didn't have better things to do with our time, we might actually be capable of playing baseball now, without either hurting or embarassing ourselves too badly.

In contrast, most of us also have memories from either high school or college of being terrorized by the big dumb lummoxes on the football team. Football players in general have an established reputation for being drunken louts with I.Q.'s in the root vegetable range, and a quick look at the team stats in any major metro newspaper's sports section would seem to validate this perception. "Hey, didja hear the Vikes are hoping to go fourteen and two this year? Fourteen arrests, two convictions!"

I know that in my case, my college had one dormitory reserved for the football team, a fluke of the registration system put me in that dorm at the start of my junior year, and the memories of that semester have stayed with me my entire adult life, no matter how hard I've tried to forget. I would rather have lived in the Primate House at Como Zoo. With Casey.

See that gleam of intelligence in his eyes? Seen that in a football player's eyes lately?

Never overlook the irrational petty revenge factor. Excluding those jock-sniffing closet cases whose newspaper careers depending on getting the local readers to take pro sports seriously, perhaps the reason why there are so few good novels written about football is that most writers find football players to be subjects suitable only for contempt, ridicule, and parody.

Or maybe it's just 'cause writers almost never get to date the really hot cheerleaders...

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Fuball vs Bazebol, cont'd

Why are there so many and such better books about baseball than about football? Part of it is that baseball more readily translates into words. As a narrative, the game can be framed as a sequence of individual duels proceeding through time in a linear fashion: pitcher vs batter, batter vs fielder, fielders vs base runners, umpire vs optometrist. A football game, on the other hand, is semi-organized mayhem. There is so much going on, in so many places, and in such a distorted place in the space/time continuum, that it's difficult to keep track of it all, much less describe any of it. The QB may start in shotgun formation, drop back and roll right, and connect on a perfectly thrown pass to the tight end who breaks three tackles and runs sixty yards for a touchdown, only to have the whole thing called back and the clock reset because some blocker did something illegal to some tackle on the other side of the field and at the start of the play.

This just does not make for good literary drama, which is probably why the best football books I know of concentrate on the sociology -- some might say the social pathology -- that surrounds the game.

Another point in baseball's favor is that it has a rich and complex history. While football as a high school and college sport has existed for more than a century and the National Football League was founded sometime in the 1920s, and the alumni of various schools can get quite excited about the fortunes of their particular team, football didn't really become a mass-market sport until the 1960s and the arrival of a color television in every home.

Baseball, on the other hand: well, newspapers and radio made it a mass-market sport, and as for history, the St. Paul Pioneer Press had an excellent article by Rick Shefchik this past Sunday looking at eight new book on the subject. These range from "Game of Shadows," a piece of serious investigative journalism examining steroid abuse, to "Black and Blue," a book about Sandy Koufax's last World Series, to "Clemente," an affectionate biography of Roberto Clemente, to "Shades of Glory," a compendium of Negro League history. There's even "The Only Game in Town," a collection of oral histories, which I'll probably read, if only because I had a Warren Spahn signature glove when I was a kid.

What does football have to offer that compares to that?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Review: A Scanner Darkly

While I'm recovering full use of my fingers, Colin Lee has kindly provided this guest column, reviewing the recently released animated adaptation by Richard Linklater of Philip K. Dick's novel, A Scanner Darkly. Thanks, Colin! And now, without further ado or typing...

I went to an arthouse theater to catch the opening week of Philip K Dick's "A Scanner Darkly," in spite of a fact that it's one of the few Dick stories I haven't read. Surprisingly for him, there wasn't much to differentiate the movie from present day. Hyperaddictive, urban drugs and home surveillance aren't unfamiliar to present day viewers. The only science fiction element was the technology of the scramble suit used in the unusual operations of the drug enforcement office.

The scramble suit also provided much of the dramatic tension. This suit, which altered light to polymorph the wearer into different appearances, was always worn at work, so undercover drug enforcements agents didn't know the real identities of their coworkers. Because of this, the main character is assigned to investigate himself after a hot tip from his friend. So the main character, played by Keanu Reeves, has to monitor hidden cameras in his own house as he goes through serious side effects and dependence on the drugs that he's been taking.

Some may decry the use of Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, and Rory Cochrane together in any movie. I'd point out that this is firstly a drug film and who better than the star of Bill and Ted's to play a junkie detective? Robert Downey Jr. excels at playing himself as a nutsy, drugged-out conspiracy theorist. One of the funniest moments of the film happens as these crazed drug fiends debate who stole the missing gears of the 21-speed bike someone sold them that only had 7 gears in front and 3 in the back. If you liked the director's film "Dazed and Confused," you must see this!

Friday, August 04, 2006

To re-up, or not to re-up (conclusion)

I don't mean to be unduly down on SFWA. The organization is of little use to me now, but 20-some years ago, when I was first starting out and eager to make contacts, joining SFWA was a very useful way to network with other writers.

It's just that since then, I've come to realize that in my particular case, what I do is far more important than who I know. This is not true for everyone. Some writers are *happy* to schmooze, smooch tuchus, and chase after theme anthology slots and Star Trek book contracts. Some don't mind spending their creative lives spinning out variations on someone else's themes.

Not me. I'm lucky, in that I have Other Things I can do to make a living. I don't need to write fiction to pay the bills.

But in any case, one strong point in SFWA's favor is that it is not the National Writer's Union ( I may make snide comments from time to time about SFWA's collective devotion to political correctness, but at least they avoid the "look for the Union label" solidarity forever idiocy of the NWU. (UAW Local 1981, a proud affiliate of the AFL-CIO!) A quick look through the NWU website reveals—

Well, you can find out for yourself. If you really want to go there.

In large part I attribute SFWA's relative effectiveness to the fact that, like the Screenwriter's Guild, most of the members are (or were, within living memory) actual professionally published writers working within the genre. This has changed somewhat in recent years, but to pursue this line of thought further would be to violate my "No gossip" rule, so I'll just point out by way of contrast that the qualifications for joining the NWU are essentially a willingness to cough up the annual dues.

But on the other hand, if you live in a certain lucky few states and have absolutely no possible other way in the world of getting health insurance...

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Let's talk about food

...and then something comes along that makes my head spin like Linda Blair. For example, yesterday I ran out to Mac & Don's to grab lunch, and I ordered two hamburgers. Instead, I got two of these:

Okay. I'm from Wisconsin. I know cheese. I like a sharp cheddar. I've actually eaten Wensleydale. (Pleasant but overated.) A lasagna isn't a lasagna unless it's got at least parmesan, romano, mozzarella, and asiago in it, although in a pinch you can substitute provolone for the asiago.

Is it really that unusual that I don't want a slab of greasy pasteurized processed American cheese food-product melted on top of my diced cow parts?

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

To re-up or not to re-up, Part 3

Just in case you're wondering, here's another example of the sorts of offers that come in over the transom via SFWA. This one dropped into my inbox about two weeks ago.
African-American Romance Anthology

Deadline: September 1, 2006

Open to SF/Fantasy/Futuristic/Paranormal sorts of romance. Hetero romance. Interracial OK if one character is African-American. Pays $100. "All stories may be edited for content and length."

Please tell editors/publishers you read their guidelines on the Erotica Readers & Writers Association Website

Nationally bestselling and award-winning authors Niobia Bryant and Kim Louise are seeking submissions of short stories for an upcoming African-American romance anthology.

We want to showcase the very best romance authors out there, whether published or unpublished. We are looking for stories that capture the very essence of a loving relationship and will resonate and remain with the reader long after they close the book. This anthology is an attempt to honor the romance writers who blazed the way, uplift the writers of today, and open the doors for those to come. We want an anthology that will properly represent the African-American romance genre in the same tradition that contemporary African-American fiction was represented by Terry Mcmillan's Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction and Clarence Major's Calling the Wind: Twentieth Century African-American Short Stories.

Anthology Concept: The stories must have at least one love scene. * The relationships must be heterosexual. * Stories should be in one of the following genres: Contemporary Romance Romantic Comedy Futuristic Romance (science fiction) Paranormal Romance Fantasy Romance Historical Romance Chick-Lit Inspirational Interracial (One of the characters must be African-American)

Submission Guidelines:

-- All stories must be written in proper manuscript formatting--12pt. Courier New, double spaced with one-inch margins.

-- Stories should be 2500 - 3500 words (10-14 pages with proper formatting)

-- E-mail your story to No attachments will be accepted. Please paste your submission into the body of the e-mail. Any stories sent as an attachment will be deleted. Please put SUBMISSION in the subject line.

-- Be sure to include your name, contact information, and your story's genre on a cover sheet WITH THE STORY. The final selection process will take a while, so if your contact information changes, please keep us informed.

-- Only original stories that have not been published in any format are allowed.

-- Just one story per author and please submit to us exclusively.

-- All stories may be edited for content and length.

-- Submissions will be accepted June 1, 2006 until September 1, 2006.


-- There will be a payment for each story accepted for the final publication. Each contributor will receive copies of the completed project and a payment of $100.00.

-- Also every contributor will be able to include a bio in the Contributors Section of both the book and the official web site

We look forward to reading your stories.

Thank you, Niobia & Kim

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

To re-up or not to re-up, Part 2

The idea persists that joining SFWA somehow gives you special insider access to publishers. There may be some truth to this, but I've never seen it demonstrated. The market information in the SFWA Bulletin generally lags months behind the various writer's websites, and the closed, by-invitation-only anthologies remain closed to all but the close friends of the editors. Very few cattle calls go out to the general membership, and those that do are usually like this one, which arrived in the email yesterday:
Best Fantastic Erotica contest

Deadline: 15 August 2006

Circlet Press is currently running the second annual Best Fantastic Erotica contest, seeking short stories of erotic science fiction and fantasy. The contest bears a $5 entry fee, but editor Cecilia Tan is waiving the fee for all current SFWA members. Just be sure to print "SFWA member" on your manuscript or mention it in your cover letter. The contest seeks sex-positive sf/f stories that are erotic in nature, sex must be integral to the story (preferably explicit), and which break new ground (please avoid cliches and overdone ideas). Hardcopy submissions only. The complete guidelines can be found at

Circlet Press, Inc.
1770 Mass. Ave. #278
Cambridge, MA 02140

I should also mention that SFWA does sell its mailing list, and while the rising cost of postage was reduced the volume in recent years, putting your name on the SFWA mailing list will guarantee you a considerable volume of junk mail.