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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Recommended Reading: Snow Blind by P.J. Tracy

Since I'm not even managing to keep up to my proposed schedule of one new post weekly, Esmerelda has kindly offered up this guest book review. Enjoy!

Are you in the mood for something mysterious, kind of creepy, and starring the famous Minnesota Winter? Then Snow Blind by P. J. Tracy is the cup of tea your brain has been looking for.

We have the familiar elements from the first three books, MonkeeWrench, Live Bait, and Dead Run — namely the MonkeeWrench computer hackers and a couple of Minneapolis PD cops — and then the Tracys throw in a few new aspects: a community for abused women, a small town with a new sheriff, and some dead bodies in encased in snowmen. Whether this is a good way to show off your murder or a clever way to make sure the recently deceased isn't found until Spring depends on how wet the snow is when you start, and then whether you've left the snowman on a frozen lake in the middle of nowhere or in the middle of a field during a children's snowman-building contest!

Snow Blind has lots of clues, and they point off in a million different directions. Serial killer? Copycat killings? Yeti? The Tracys seem to delight in keeping you two steps away from the answer, and I for one am happy to keep guessing right up until the end.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Remembering the Future: Cyberpunk

I'm exceedingly pleased to report that a high school in Florida now uses Cyberpunk as required reading. Hence this post.

Dear Mr. Rhodes,

Thank you for forwarding your students' comments and questions regarding my novel, Cyberpunk. I'm glad to hear that they enjoyed reading it. To be perfectly honest, when I wrote that book, more than twenty years ago, I never for one minute imagined that people might still be reading it or finding it interesting or relevant more than two decades later.

That's one of the strange little secrets of science fiction. While we sci-fi writers routinely set our stories in the future, no writer I know — at least, no sane writer — seriously believes that he or she can predict the future. We're entertainers, not prophets, and the whole point of beginning a story with "Once upon a time," "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away," or "Sometime in the early 23rd Century," is to insert aesthetic distance. We set our stories in strange times and places, not because we're trying to foresee the actual events that will occur in those times or places, but because we're either, a.) playing the "what if" game, or more likely, b.) using that distance to hold a warped funhouse mirror up to contemporary reality, so that we can tell our readers a story that works better if it's not set in the readily recognizable here and now.

Any time a sci-fi writer makes a semi-informed guess about the future, then, and actually gets something right and creates a story that does not look downright silly twenty years later — well, yes, it's cause for celebration, but it's also more likely to be the result of luck than of brilliance.

As a case in point: back in February of 1980, when I wrote the first rough draft of the original "Cyberpunk" short story, I was mostly interested in using the "what if" methodology to explore one question. To wit: given that children learn new languages more easily than do adults, given that this ability is not restricted to "organic" languages, and given that mastery of a new technology is often synonymous with power, what might happen when the parents and other adult authority figures of the early 21st Century come into conflict with the first generation of children who have grown up truly "speaking" computer?

This, in one very tiny nutshell, is the core idea behind this story. Everything else that you see here is merely a matter of working out the permutations on this idea, or else it's set-dressing, whose primary purpose is simply to establish that this story takes place in the future, but not the distant future.

The danger of writing fiction set in the not-too-distant future, of course, is that reality ineveitably catches up with your story. Ergo, given that Cyberpunk is my vision of life in the early 21st Century as seen from the vantage point of 1980, and given that we are now living in the early 21st Century, a new and (to me) completely unanticipated question arises: how does my vision from 1980 stack up against the reality of 2007?

Well, first off, as many people have pointed out, I completely missed the wireless revolution. That's a fair cop. There are no cell phones, satellite phones, or wi-fi hotspots anywhere in the world of this story, and that's a glaring failure of imagination on my part. In my defense, though, I'd like to point out that in 1980, AT&T was still the phone company as far as most Americans were concerned, and while mobile phones did exist, they were exclusively the toys of very rich jerks. In my wildest nightmares (speaking now as an AT&T shareholder), I simply never for a minute imagined that the Justice Department might actually win its anti-trust lawsuit against AT&T, or that the resulting court-ordered breakup of AT&T would result in the telecommunications industry chaos we saw in the late 1980s, followed by the explosive proliferation of new telephone technologies that hit the market in the 1990s. Above all, I never once imagined that the merging of telephony, "cellular" two-way radio, and digital data technologies would produce those things we now call cellphones and wi-fi networks — or at least, not on any kind of commerically successful scale, anyway.

On the other hand, if I have to take the hit for missing the wireless world, then it's only fair that I'm also credited for calling broadband right. In 1980, CATV was a fairly uncommon technology, but in it I saw the solutions to what I believed were the three biggest problems facing the Net: bandwidth, data security, and cabling topology. Consequently, while in Mikey's world there may be no cell phones, broadband is everywhere.

There are many other things that I think I got right in this book, and we could go into them in more detail, if you like. For example, if you were to take a survey of near-future sci-fi short stories published in the 1980s, you'd find an unnervingly consistent consensus that in the early 21st Century:

  • Japan would be the world's dominant economic power.
  • The Soviet Union would be the world's dominant military power.
  • The U.S. would be bogged down in a series of quagmire wars with various Central and South American narco-Marxist movements.
  • We'd all have really ugly haircuts.
  • Everyone would be taking fistfuls of designer drugs all the time.
  • We'd all have electronic chips and interface sockets surgically implanted in our skulls.
  • And, we'd all be living most of our lives directly jacked into virtual reality.

If, on the other hand, you're looking for the one book that took a somewhat different view and actually got all these things right...

In retrospect, there is only one prediction I'm sorry I missed in the book, and two that I'm very glad I did miss. The one I wish I'd had the wits to foresee was the idea that in the Spring of 2007, a movie about the last stand of King Leonidas and the Spartans at Thermopylae would be the Number One movie in America! If I'd only imagined this, I certainly would have given the Battle of Thermopylae a lot more thorough coverage than I actually did in this book!

The first prediction I'm glad I missed is one that's been part of Mikey's world ever since the first draft of the original short story, and this is the idea of using a network of subverted computers to create a virtual "grid" supercomputer, and then of using this grid for criminal purposes. In point of fact I actually nailed this one spot-on in the book, but right at the moment I would much rather have my genius be underappreciated than be known as "the guy who invented bot-nets."

The second prediction, however, is the one I'm really glad I missed, and it's also the reason why Cyberpunk was sold to a publisher but never released. When I finally finished the novel and turned it in, the publisher loved most of it, but absolutely hated the ending. He kept sending me back to rewrite the ending, and then rejecting my rewrites, until in the end he just flat-out told me that he wanted me to end the book with Mikey going postal inside the Academy and KILLING everyone who had ever insulted, annoyed, or offended him. Even ten years before Columbine, though, I found this idea to be utterly morally repulsive, and so I refused to write it — which is why the book ends when and where it does.

Anyway, that's the story of the story. I hope this answers most of your questions, but if you have more, I'll be happy to try to answer them.

Kindest regards,

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Educating Writers

I've run into another First Rule situation, so blogging is going to be very light for the next few weeks. (The First Rule of Being a Professional Writer, in case you've missed one of the earlier discussions of it, is — everyone repeat after me — Paying work on deadline always takes precedence.)

Ergo, for the next few weeks, I'm going to cut back to one post weekly, which I plan to put up on Sunday nights so that it flushes through to all the folks on FeedBlitz first thing Monday morning. I'm hoping to use each of these posts to tackle a Big Question, which with luck will stimulate a week's worth of discussion.

To kick it off, Boz writes:
My wife is the grammar school dean of a private classical Christian school, and she was conversing with one of her teachers who is the mother of a young lady who graduated from the school a couple of years ago. The young lady — who was the class valedictorian — had gone to college to pursue a major in journalism. Mid-way through her second semester, a professor and advisor called her into a meeting to strongly advise her to change her major. The reason?

She was too good of a writer to spend her talents in journalism!

Being the product of a college Journalism program, I have to say, I'm not surprised by this. "Journalism" and "good writing" are two areas with some measure of overlap, but they are not the same. True, there's a certain romantic aura associated with journalism — think Twain or Hemingway — but I'm inclined to believe that that's an old paradigm. Real mass media journalism, as it's practiced now, is all about getting the quote, getting the scoop, and getting it out NOW.

Good writing, which requires research, understanding, thoughtfulness, and careful editing and rewriting — well, heck, son, there isn't TIME for that. We got a NEWSPAPER to get out. (Or a show to go live at the top of the hour, etc., etc.) And don't bother polishing your prose, 'cause our readers only read at a 5th grade level, and you've only got six column inches in which to tell your story anyway, and besides, polishing prose is the copy editor's job.

This is not to say the Journalism degree was a complete waste of time. In the program, I was taught many useful craft skills. I learned that it's okay to write simple declarative sentences. I learned that I didn't need to show off my vocabulary every time. I learned that no matter how excited I was, there was always time to take a deep breath and think before I started writing, so that when I began, I had some idea of what it was I was trying to say. Most importantly of all, I learned that having the story DONE was more important than having it PERFECT. All these skills have stood me in good stead in my real career, which as most of you already know, is technical writing.

But when it comes to creative writing, here's the Big Question: What are good subjects to study in college?

I would have to recommend starting off with a good ground in classic literature, I suppose. If nothing else, it saves you from having to start all over again with a bucket of nouns and verbs and no clue of how to put them together. But after that?

I'm not much of a fan of creative writing courses. I took plenty of creative writing courses, back when they were simply fluff electives in the English Department and before it was possible to major in creative writing, and I have to admit, all those classes pretty much were a complete waste of time. The most useful writing class I ever took wasn't even offered through a university; it was held at a community center, where we worked through Peter Elbow's book, Writing Without Teachers, and the real value of the course wasn't even the method, but the fact that for the first time ever I had to expose my ideas to people who were not affluent college-educated white liberal 18- to 22-year-olds. It was a real eye-opener, I'll tell you.

The biggest problem I see with people who come out of university creative writing programs now is that there's a certain dreary sameness to the work. They may have the technical chops, but there's no life in the stories; they're reduced to spinning out variations on ideas they've read in other people's books. In contrast, as I get older, I find it's the people who have been out there living who actually have the interesting stories to tell, but of course, that whole idea is antithetical to the idea of a university education.

So to restate it, here's the Big Question again. Given that it's impossible to impart experience and maturity through mere coursework, what are good courses for the aspiring creative writer to take in college?

Your thoughts, s'il vous plait?


Thursday, March 08, 2007

2006 Bulwer-Lytton Awards

How ever did I manage to miss this? The winners of the 2006 Bulwer-Lytton Awards have been announced, and you can read them all right here.

If you're unfamiliar with this highly esteemed literary honor, the award is named for Victorian novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton, who in 1830 achieved literary immortality of a sort by beginning his novel, Paul Clifford, with these unforgettable words:
"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

In recognition of this remarkable sentence, the English department at San Jose State University each year presents the Bulwer-Lytton Awards, to dishonor those writers who have gone above and beyond the call of duty, by emulating Mr. Bulwer-Lytton and producing the truly awful opening lines of otherwise imaginary books.

As you might expect, I gravitate to the entry by Camille Barigar, of Twin Falls, Idaho, whose winning entry in the Fantasy category is as follows:
It was within the great stony nostril of a statue of Landrick the Elfin Vicelord that Frodo's great uncle, Jasper Baggins, happened to stumble upon the enchanted Bag of Holding, not to be confused with the Hag of Bolding, who was quite fond of leeks, most especially in a savory Hobbit knuckle stew.

The only problem is, this sentence is quite a bit better than the openings of many faux-Tolkien novels I've actually read.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Just a Drop in the Gene Pool

This just in: Dr. Stephen Oppenheimer, a medical geneticist at the University of Oxford, has announced in his new book, The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story, that the results of a comprehensive DNA survey of the British Isles lead to an inescapable and unsettling conclusion. The English, the Irish, the Scots, and the Welch? Genetically, they're all the same.

What's more, their primary ancestors are a Basque people who crossed over to the isles at the end of the last ice age. The subsequent invasions by Celts, Angles, Romans, Jutes, Saxons, Normans, etc., etc., etc., etc., hardly made a ripple in the gene pool.

As someone who finds the whole concept of "racial purity" somewhere between historically ludicrous and morally odious, I can't help but smile at this news. As a writer who has grown deeply weary of all the pseudo-Celtic magickal krappe that has saturated the field in recent years, I might even crack a smirk. But right off the top of my head, I can think of a half-dozen Irish chauvanists I know who tonight will be crying in their Guinness over this terrible turn of events.

"Say it ain't so, Seamus!"

Monday, March 05, 2007

Are you now, or have you ever been, a flake?

Interesting op-ed piece in this morning's St. Paul Pioneer Press. In it, Dr. Norbert Hirschhorn, a retired physician and poet, writes:
In our time the disciplines of neuroscience, genetics, psychology and art history have joined to develop a theory about creativity, especially in the arts. Creativity, it is proposed, is somehow linked genetically to the disorders of brain chemistry that give us manic-depression, also known as bipolar illness. As a poet myself and with some inclination to be gloomy, I was curious to explore the matter further...
This, as you might guess, is something I've long wondered about. I've certainly known many writers who were wildly unstable, and plenty of musicians and visual media artists who were a bag of fries short of a Happy Meal. [Especially the multimedia folks. "How do you like my latest work?" "It's a bunch of empty beer cans tied to a stick with some old yarn." "You stupid philistine! It's a satirical commentary on our disposable consumer culture using found objects to juxtapose natural elements with post-industrial detritus!" "Au contraire, my friend, it's a bunch of beer cans, and they're tied to a stick."]

So here's the question I've never been able to answer, because I'm much too close to the problem: are creative types creative because they're flakes, or are they flakes because, as creative types, they're indulged and allowed to get away with this kind of behavior?

Your thoughts, s'il vous plait?

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Recommended Watching: Idiocracy

I don't know quite what to say about this one —

— except that it's very crude, very acerbic, somewhat uneven, and very, very funny. I wish I'd written it. If I ever get to teach a course in science fiction cinema, this one will probably be on the required watching list.

You need more? Okay, the setup is that Luke Wilson plays Private Joe Bauers, an absolutely and utterly ordinary schlub who gets selected for a top secret Army experiment in human hibernation. Except something goes awry (of course) and he wakes up in the year 2505, to discover that, because for generations intelligent people have been too busy to have children while useless dimwits have continued to procreate with gleeful abandon, the human race has now deteriorated to the point where a retired pro wrestler is now the President of the United States!

Okay, so maybe this joke is funnier if you live in Minnesota.

Suffice to say, if you liked Office Space or King of the Hill, you'll probably like this one. If you've never seen either of those, think of Idiocracy as Sleeper with a less neurotic and more likable lead character and a much more savage and satirical sense of humor.

It's definitely not a movie for everyone, but I really enjoyed it.