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Monday, September 25, 2006

Of long tails and short days

A month into the new semester, it's become apparent that Things Must Change. In the mornings, by the time we get The Kid out the door and on the schoolbus, I have little or no time left in which to write; in the evenings, by the time I get everything else that must be done buttoned up for the day, I have no energy left for the writing. A dozen or more perfectly good blog topics have gone unused lately as the time to write about them simply has not existed, and my intent to atone for these omissions by writing one big article each weekend has gone straight to the place where things paved with good intentions usually go.

For example, this weekend, I really intended to do a serious think-piece exploring "the long tail" and it's impact on working writers.

But instead I spent Sunday afternoon exploring the kitchen sink plumbing and discovering that if enough plastic-coated twisty-ties find their way down the drain, in time they form a tangled mass down in the "S" trap that no amount of Drano or snaking will dislodge, and getting the sink usuable again then becomes a matter for pipe wrenches, long-handled needle-nose pliers, and much bashing of knuckles and swearing.

As for the "long tail" business: this started out as a reaction to a Wall Street Journal article. (Yes, we subscribe to the WSJ.) The gist of it is that in the Internet age, no book ever really becomes unavailable; it just becomes a question of how far you're willing to go to find it. For example, old friend Anton Rang recently sent me this photo, which he snapped in a bookstore in Surabaya.

That's Surabaya. Island of Java, east of Krakatoa, Indonesia. If you're on a broadband connection you might want to zoom in and look at some of the other books on the shelves next to that pretty young lady, and then let's all hold hands together and sing: "It's a small world after all..."

The long tail is also the driving force behind something else that a few of you have noticed already: my wife's new business, K & B Booksellers. But I've run out of time for further writing this morning, and haven't even gotten started on the subject of this poor fellow down in Brazil who sent me an email asking when I'm going to write my next Robot City novel, and the challenge of letting a fan down gently when you speak English and he speaks Portugese.


Tuesday, September 19, 2006

...and while you're in a helpful mood...

On behalf of a friend, and if you're in an agreeable mood, I'd appreciate it if you'd do a little unpaid market research. Specifically, the next time that you're in a Barnes & Nobles or Borders bookstore, take a look either in the front of the store or in the kids section for any special Halloween display they might have, and specifically look for Kirk Scrogg's Wiley & Grampa's Creature Features series. If you can find the books on display, report back which store it was (chain and city) and where in the store you found 'em. If you can't find the books, that's of even more interest.


Monday, September 18, 2006

Weekend of the Triffids

I ran across a 50-year-old copy of John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids at a garage sale Saturday, bought it, and wound up reading it during the tornado watch Saturday night. At 191 pages it's a quick read, and I had some vague recollections of an old movie of the same name and wanted to check them. Day of the Triffids, Night of the Comet, Day of the Anteaters, Night of the Big Heat, Afternoon of the Sexually Aroused Gas Mask, Night of the Day of the Dawn of the Son of the Bride of the Return of the Revenge of the Terror of the Attack of the Evil Mutant Hellbound Flesh-Eating Subhumanoid Zombified Living Dead... After awhile they all run together, and most of them seem to star Peter Cushing.

Let's see: mysterious meteor shower strikes most of humanity blind? Check. Giant ambulatory carnivorous plants go on a feeding frenzy? Check. Lucky sighted survivor hooks up with plucky beautiful girl, and together they have a series of hairsbreadth escapes, only to finally discover the murderous plants' one weakness and destroy them?

Warning! Arrr, there be Spoilers ahead!

At risk of coining a cliché, this is a case where the book is far, far better than the movie. For one, there's nothing mysterious about the "meteor shower," but rather than explain I'll just toss out a date: October 4, 1957.

For another, there's nothing mysterious about the origins of the triffids: they're a Russian hybridization of a rare tropical plant. (The term "genetically modified" is never used, as the book was first published in 1951, years before Watson, Crick & Franklin figured out DNA.) Their proclivity to uproot themselves and move about in search of better soil is also well-known to the characters in the book, as is their carnivorous nature and their highly toxic "sting," but these are tolerated because triffids are an economically important crop, better than soybeans and grown by the millions to be processed for oil and cattle feed. Nor is our hero merely a lucky guy who happened to be in the right place at the right time; he's a plant biologist who works for a major agribusiness and knows triffids inside and out.

For another thing, the title is somewhat misleading. In the real course of story the triffids are mostly a damnable nuisance. After the initial catastrophe, it's the other human survivors who are the true menaces, and our hero — and yes, his exceptionally plucky girlfriend — experience most of their terror and hairsbreadth escapes at the hands of their loving fellow Englishmen.

What really made the book interesting for me, though, was the way it neatly segued into a series of critiques of various utopias. Without seeming episodic, our hero manages to journey through all manner of visions for rebuilding the world, and makes it clear why each of them is doomed to failure.

But, being pressed for time, I'll save those observations for the comments thread. Anyone else here have some familiarity with this book, or the movie, or have a favorite 1950's "End of the World as We Know It" story?

Friday, September 15, 2006

Heinlein returns from the dead, again!

This one seems to be a popular topic, so I'm using my nearly limitless powers to bubble it back to the top of the list. Have fun!

Colin Lee forwards this message from slashdot:
"Robert Heinlein's last novel, Variable Star , will be released in September. Completed by Spider Robinson at the behest of Heinlein's estate, the novel is based on the notes and outline created by Heinlein for the novel over 50 years ago. It was set aside and forgotten when Heinlein went to work on other projects. The story follows the life of Joel Johnston who — after having a fallout with his girlfriend and going on a bender — wakes up on a starship bound for the stars. Spider Robinson has done an excellent job maintaining Heinlein's style and flow throughout the novel. Want to check out the story for yourself? You can download the first eight chapters online from the 'Excerpts' link on the site as they are released over the next few weeks."
My first reaction, of course, is "Aw geez, not this crap again." Look, Robert Heinlein is long dead. Virginia Heinlein is dead. So far as I know Heinlein never had any children with any of his three wives, so when we're talking about "the Heinlein estate" we aren't even talking about the Brian Herbert thing of the kid trying to work the old man's family farm, but rather the business interests of the Spectrum Literary Agency and a section 501(c) non-profit corporation known as The Heinlein Society.

Y'know, 20-some years ago, I remember someone whose name I should remember now suggesting in the SFWA Forum, in classic half-joking full-serious manner, that we should all just give up trying to write under our own names and instead join a SFWA-administered apprenticeship and studio program, under which we would be evaluated, trained, and eventually allowed to write under the names of either Asimov®, Clarke®, or Heinlein®...

But never mind that. Here's today's idea.

Back around 1989 or so, I was on a panel at a con that started out as a fairly straight-faced Heinlein tribute and retrospective but then went silly when someone suggested that Heinlein had in fact not died, but rather had faked his own death in order to escape all the book packagers who were after him to license derivative works. From there we got going on the Heinlein sequels and spinoffs that should exist, if only Ginny would relent and grant us permission to write 'em: The Cat Who Walks Through Doors, The Cat Who Claws The Furniture, The Cat Who Falls Out Windows; Starship Messcooks, Starship Cabinboys, Starship Foredeck Hands; Stranger in an Even Stranger Land, Stranger in the Strangest Land Yet, Stranger in an Actually Rather Surprisingly Ordinary Land; Podkayne of Chicago, Podkayne of Philadelphia, Podkayne Does Dallas...

It was when we got going on sequels to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress that everything really went to hell.

So here's today's challenge. I want you to come up with a title and a brief synopsis for the Heinlein® novel *you* would write, if only you could get permission from the estate. Ready? Set? GO!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Our Friend, Global Climate Change

Our distant cousin, Homo neanderthalensis, has been much in the news lately. First came reports from a DNA study that concluded that, based on comparisons to the other great apes, it was our old pal Neander who was in the genetic mainstream of primate evolution, and we tall, skinny, and big-headed Sapiens who were the oddball mutations. Somehow I find this thought strangely pleasing.

Then yesterday, the BBC ran this article, which is apparently based on this other article in Nature magazine, which concludes that H. neanderthalensis survived much later than previously thought, and that it was a global climate change some 30,000 years ago which finally wiped them out and made room for our ancestors.

Cultures are unstable; nations are unstable; species are unstable. Science fiction writers who write of recognizably Western liberal human cultures 50,000 years in the future are suffering from a failure of imagination.

Just like poor old Cousin Neander.

The Department of Shameless Self-Promotion

Oops, completely missed this in all the fun and confusion of the new semester. BenBella's latest SmartPop book, James Bond in the 21st Century, was released two weeks ago, and already there are used and "collectible" copies on

I'm pretty pleased with my contribution to this one. I got the capstone position this time and got to write the final summation, "James Bond: Now More Than Ever." If I may be so bold, it ain't half bad. Any time you can work Amhert Villiers superchargers, the Mersenne Twister 19337 algorithm, the assassination of Isoroku Yamamoto, and a brief discourse on medieval German tageliede all into the same article, life is good.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Five Years Ago Today

On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was supposed to be flying to Seattle. It was to be a business trip for a series of meetings that got canceled and rescheduled at the last minute, though, so instead of going to the airport that morning, I drove in to the office, in my Mazda with the broken radio.

None of my co-workers were in their cubicles. Instead, they were all in the conference room down the hall, watching the big TV. I caught the editor and asked what the meeting was about. She said, "Didn't you hear?"


Five years later, what I think of now is the silence. My office is about a mile off the end of the major east-west runway. When I first started here, I was annoyed by the constant rumble of aircraft passing overhead, but after a month or so it just became background noise. Then came the morning of 9/11, the immediate grounding of all air traffic in the country, and for three days the skies were filled with a terrible, oppressive silence, broken only by the occasional nerve-wracking roar of the F-16's on combat air patrol passing overhead.

That's our writer's exercise for today. Sound, sight, smell, taste, touch; is there one "sense cue" that you associate with 9/11, and if so, what was it?

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Another View: Toni Morrison's Beloved

Actually, JVS in MS sent in her review first, but I was holding it back until I got Flicka's because I wanted to run them both at about the same time. Without further ado...

In a May 21, 2006, article, the NY Times calls Beloved by Toni Morrison the best work of American fiction from the past 25 years. In an unscientific survey taken of 125 hand-chosen literary ‘sages,’ the winning book garnered 15 votes. That’s how divided the choices were, among those whom agreed to make a choice. According to the Times article, Beloved was the clear choice for many of the critics, even if they did not concede an opinion. To reference the article, look here.

In an equally unscientific fashion, Mr. Bethke invited me to give my perspective on the Times’ choice of Beloved. Rather than write an analytical essay through one of many choices of critical lenses, my effort was to find some consensus on the value of the book, based on a sampling of a few others’ views. (I have to admit that when Bethke’s initial blog about Beloved arose, I confused the story with Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The stories are strangely similar, but I won’t go into that now.)

In the 1990’s, I worked in the English department of a Northern university, where I also attended grad school. There, I observed the interpretive styles and maverick egos of a wide variety of literary critics. Under the banner of academic freedom, few faculty can agree on anything at one given time. In fact, they can all be saying the same essential thing in a meeting, but disagree by using their own rhetoric just for argument’s sake. (I’m sure that never happens in other disciplines or work forces, right?) That helps to explain the slim-edged agreement among the above-mentioned literary sages. Much to its credit, my university faculty one year chose Beloved as the common text which all freshmen would read and discuss in their first semester of college English. For the first and perhaps only time, the entire faculty agreed that this was a good choice, which allowed for varied levels of discussion and revelations about the Reconstruction and Emancipation following the War Between the States. On soil where no blood spilled from this war, this was a good choice of text, especially in the Great White North.

As a college literature text, Beloved provides a wealth of practice in literary analysis. Here is a link to an interesting essay using psychoanalysis as a lens to understanding the text. For an in-depth look at the black cultural aspects of Beloved, I would be remiss if I didn’t provide this link to the African American Review’s article.

But the NY Times bestowed Beloved with “best American fiction,” – literary acumen with a wide berth. Choosing “the best of” anything is like the old question of; ‘if you were stranded on a desert isle, which one book would you take?’ For me, it’s a not tough choice, and it’s something quite different! Yet, Beloved is an important novel which will stand the test of time. It’s already standard on most college English class reading lists. When it was first published in 1987, it won resounding praise and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.

Toni Morrison weaves many layers of slave narrative, African American culture, spirituality, and struggles of emancipated blacks after the Civil War. This rich tapestry is given life through the eyes of one woman who finds salvation on many levels in her particularly tragic life. For these elements, I have to agree with the NY Times’ choice, for the way Morrison illuminates, via historical fiction, an ugly (and still haunting) part of the American fabric. Believe me, I did not want to agree that Beloved is the best, but I must maintain that it is vitally important for many reasons -- not the least of which that it was written by an African American woman. For me, it is also important to note the epigraph at the beginning of the book, which quotes the one book I would take with me to a desert island.

Margaret Atwood wrote a review of Beloved in the NY Times (September 13, 1987), and called it a “triumph.” Atwood makes clear for readers the connection of the epigraph (from Romans, in the Bible) to the overarching theme of the book. The depth of this fiction is notable. Beloved is not pulp fiction -- it is the kind of literature in which you will continue to find meaning in every chapter, every reading. If you have not read the book, you will find this review helpful for plot overview, character introductions, and thematic metaphors.

So, let’s have a little reality check. How much credence does the NY Times have about literature? For one thing, the paper has a bevy of hot critics writing reviews of new books every week! It can make or break a book and its author. I remember the “Sex and the City” episode in which Carrie hangs on every word of the Times’ review of her new book. If it is the center of American Cultural Intelligence, as evidenced in its own egocentric view, it carries a lot of clout in its sphere of readers and writers. How much influence does the choice by the NY Times for the ‘book of the quarter century’ have?

Beloved is not making literary waves in the Deep South at this moment, it seems. (That the story is set in Ohio may have some influence; after all, that’s a “Yankee State.”) In checking my local library, there are three (of three) copies of Morrison’s novel on the shelf. None are checked out, none are reserved. The regional library system for the entire southern half of Mississippi shows three copies available. Perhaps Hurricane Katrina swept some away.

The other day I was outraged, or at least a little reflective, when I found that the movie, Beloved, is not at our local Blockbuster, and not even at the local library. The closest available copy is 60 miles away. Here I am, in the Deep South, in a town held siege by the Yankees, and there is not one copy of an ‘important’ Oprah Winfrey movie available! (I am not an Oprah fan, so this movie may have been one exception where I would give her any credence.) This is not to say that the movie version of Beloved is true to the novel (since I haven’t seen it); few movies are. It would have been nice to see the movie, to compare and contrast! The movie received mixed reviews: Boston Tech clearly did not like the movie. However, the reviewer has no business doubting the book’s Pulitzer Prize, since he admits to not reading it. Salt Lake City’s Deseret News did like the movie: clearly, in popular culture, there is not only a lack of interest in Beloved, but also symptoms of apathy for what it represents.

Everyone has their own favorite stack of books of mixed genres, and to choose just one is nearly impossible. I agree that Beloved is an important novel, but reserve the right to say that the “best” may be in the eyes of the beholder.


Thursday, September 07, 2006

Review: Toni Morrison's Beloved

Earlier this summer, The New York Times asked a panel of 125 literary luminaries to name the most important American novel published in the last 25 years, and the winner was Toni Morrison, for Beloved. Back in July I asked you folks to tell me why this book is so important, and at last, I have some answers.

First up, our own dear Flicka Spumoni. Without further ado:

By the second page of Beloved, Toni Morrison earned my respect as a story teller with this sentence: "Sky provided the only drama, and counting on a Cincinnati horizon for life’s principal joy was reckless indeed."

This sentence is so good because it speaks volumes about who Baby Suggs is, by describing the state of her soul, not her outward appearance. Baby Suggs is a woman so completely despairing of life that the only thing she finds safe to take pleasure in any more is color, and yet she is not so beaten down that she would recklessly rely on the horizon for her principal joy in life. Immediately, the reader’s imagination runs to the farthest edge of ruin and imagines Baby there, teetering, tethered to life by a strand of color. An average writer would waste three pages describing her physical appearance, or surroundings or the state of her clothes. Only the most skillful author possess the acumen to isolate the very most pertinent and revealing details to a story and focus on them as adroitly as Toni Morrison does in Beloved. She is a rare talent.

But I knew this author had heft with the first two sentences: "124 was spiteful. Full of baby’s venom."

These are so good for too many reasons to list, but it is brilliant enough that the entire story - and more than that, why this story is important not only to the characters within but to the reader far removed from those characters - is contained in the answers to the questions those sentences beg.

What or who is 124? Why is it spiteful? Baby’s venom? What’s that? Why is 124 full with it?

To explain the answers, one must tell the story. And from that vantage, Beloved takes shape.

Toni Morrison is also an expert at writing to the gut; the very best type of writing, in my opinion. Most writers make the mistake of appealing to the intellect, and while that is great for non-fiction, it’s found lacking in a story. Consider this example, one of hundreds: "Rainwater held on to pine needles for dear life and Beloved could not take her eyes off Sethe."

For brevity’s sake I will only assert that this sentence is felt in my bones as desperation and it’s exactly how to go about telling anything worth telling.

But the story…. Be forewarned, the story is one hard, sharp stone to bleed on, a detestable little thing. It’s about what happens when people who are abused worse than death find freedom, only to have it snatched away again. According to Beloved, they are pushed to the point of infanticide. And, that’s the ugly business of the book, sawing off a baby’s head in order to keep it from slavery. This is not a safe story. It smashes you to pieces. But, in the unflinching dedication to the vision, to the raw truth of the story no matter how ugly, to the unrelenting examination of the hard facts, Beloved is one, white-hot flash of brilliance.

Flicka Spumoni

Turning the corner into Fall

Autumn arrives early, up here on the northern great plains. The mornings are cool and crisp these days, the geese are starting to flock up in the cow pasture, and some of the more highly strung maples are already starting to turn their fall colors.

Speaking of fresh starts, The Kid has started a new semester, at a new school, on a new bus schedule, which means my leisurely morning hour of writing and blogging time has vanished. Patience, please, while I figure out a new schedule.