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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Futility (Part 1)

There is a book — actually, there are lots of books. Got nothing but books here, y'know? There must be close to 10,000 books on this level of the house alone, so of course, there is this one particular book, and now that I want to quote it, do you think I can find it?

The book is Constructing Scientifiction, by five-time Hugo Award-winning Best Editor and founding Asimov's editor George Scithers and legendary author Darrell Schweitzer. (If you've met Darrell, you know why he's legendary. Hi, Darrell!) Since I can't find my copy of it right now — I will, of course, find it next week, when I'm no longer looking for it — I'm going to have to paraphrase.

On the subject of endings, Scithers had something like this to say. (Paraphrasing, now.) We do not buy stories that end in futility. By all means, have the hero fail. That's what makes it tragedy. Have him try, have him struggle against impossible odds, and in the end, have him lose and even die, but dammit, have him go down fighting! Stories about people who surrender meekly to their fates are inherently uninteresting and depressing.

Applying this principle to "The Cold Equations," then — sorry, I hate to keep harping on it, but it's such a good point of reference — here's the Joss Whedon rewrite. Everything proceeds about the same as in the original, right up to the point at which Marilyn seems to have accepted her fate and Barton, full of sympathy, turns his head and lowers his guard for a moment.
BAM! In a sudden and surprising blur of motion, the girl nailed Barton in the temple with a pivot-kick that hit him like a sandal-tipped bolt of lightning. Barton staggered and sagged to the deck, seeing stars, and by the time he recovered his wits she'd recovered the gun, had it pointed at him, and was screaming at the top of her lungs.


She stepped back out of Barton's reach and with the gun motioned Barton into the pilot's chair. "There is no way I am going out that frakkin' airlock! According to you I'm dead anyway, so right now I don't give a Tyderian bat's behind who else dies too! Which means you have got exactly five minutes to either teach me how to fly this crate before you go jump out the airlock yourself, or else we are going to solve this problem!"

She swallowed hard, and struggled to get control of her rapid breathing. "Now, let's think. If every blasted ounce is critical, why does this bucket have a storeroom with a door? I know, so I had someplace to hide, but never mind that; about that door. How much does it weigh? How do the hinges come apart?" Barton started to answer, but she snapped the gun into his face again.

"No, first, out of that uniform, flyboy! Don't get any happy ideas; you are way too old for me. But those boots you're wearing must be five pounds each." Barton began stripping, and while his skivvies were down around his ankles Marilyn risked another glance around the cabin.

"Next, you get on the radio, and you tell those sadistic bastards back on the Stardust what the situation is now and get 'em started on calculating a new landing trajectory for us..."
As I said, it's the Joss Whedon rewrite, and admittedly a load of shameless buffytastic dramaqueening. But this got me thinking:

Is that part of the problem with heroism these days? That as a post-literate culture we're all so imprinted with the sort over-the-top dramaqueenery the movies have been peddling for the last half-century or so that we no longer understand or remember what real heroism was like?

As a case in point, let's talk about two similar but very different book-based movies: Marooned, based on the novel by Martin Caidin, and Apollo 13, based on the non-fiction book Lost Moon, by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger. be continued...

Monday, July 28, 2008

Violence: An Update

Following up on this post from last week. First off, I want to stress two points. The first is that this incident really brought out all the gun-toting Drama Queens around this town. Y'know, the guys who were not only eager to tell the world exactly which weapons they would have used in what ways in this situation, but also the exact pithy things they would have said as they gunned down the villains.

That is one of my favorite moments in Fargo: the way the father-in-law rehearses the exact way he's going to say, "Here's your damn money, now give me back my daughter!" as he drives to meet the kidnappers. It is so true to life. And yet so pathetic.

In real life, I don't have a lot of patience with Drama Queens.

The second is one I stressed in the original post. We did not know the race of the victim. Most of the overheated rhetoric associated with this story was based on the assumption that the victim and his daughter were white, that this was a black gang on innocent white family crime, and it really brought out the "round 'em up and ship 'em back to Africa" crowd. I actually saw that comment posted, more than once, and I didn't think this needed to be said in the 21st century, but apparently it does. I have zero patience with that $#!+ and will not tolerate it.

That is what really pushed me over the edge to write that original post.

Towards the end of the commentary on the original post, DaveD wrote, "The question now becomes: Bruce, what would YOU do? Fair's fair." I've been working on the answer to that question for a few days. Somehow it seems to have become a long article about violence, bravery, heroism, and how I split my best friend's head open and put him in the hospital when I was 12. The answer seems to be evolving into a series that I'll probably start posting this week once I get a firm fix on my thesis.

But in the meantime, there has been a development in the original case that sparked all this commentary. The D.A.'s office, which initially refused to identify the victims in order to protect the witnesses from retaliation, has since decided that one key piece of information does need to be released and widely disseminated. The man who was beaten and put into a coma, and his 12-year-old daughter who was sexually assaulted, are black.

Oh. Suddenly there is a deafening silence on talk radio and in the blogosphere. It was just more black-on-black crime. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing to see here. Not our people. No reason to get involved. No need to care.

For some reason, I find this both disturbing and depressing.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

And the winner is...

We had a hard time picking the winner this week. Daughter #3 decided to help out and that just made the judging more contentious.

Henry, thank you. Everyone in the room knew exactly when she hit paragraph 3 of your entry from the very loud, "Ee-yuw!" Well done.

Bane, nice job, in a very dark kind of way. Very reminiscent of Orson Scott Card's famous visit from his future grandson. Wish I could find a link to that right now. There's another story here that you need to write.

Ben-El, we just didn't know what to make of this one. The focus seems awfully blurry and with the references to other posts and letters, it wasn't self-contained. This either requires a larger context to work or needs to be more focused, I'm not sure which.

Rigel: on the other hand yours is too focused, and yet you somehow evade a decision. You can afford to stretch out and go longer.

Kremben: similar issue as Ben-El, cross-pollinated with Rigel. You make some very good points, but kind of meander between them. As opposed to Rigel, your letter would benefit from one more editing pass, to tighten and focus.

So while I was disappointed that not one of you came up with Polonius's speech from Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3, in the end we were down to rycamor and Passin Through. I was partial to rycamor's, because it just drips with authentic father/child sentiment, but Daughter #3 and Karen both picked Passin Through's, because it was so clearly and tightly focused. Ergo, in the end —

The judges called it a split decision. Passin Through and rycamor, come on down and claim your prizes.

Now, as for the current Friday Challenge, the topic is the tech support guy (or gal) who saved the world, and the deadline is midnight, Thursday, July 31.

Sneak preview: And while I'm not totally committed to this one, I think the 8/1/08 Friday Challenge will be something that can be summed up in this title: "The Cold Equations II: Donner's Planet."

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Ongoing Fiction Discussion Discussion

Today's Topic: "The Cold Equations," by Tom Godwin: A Work of Utter Brilliance or A Total Load of Crap?

John W. Campbell, Jr. In science fiction circles, the name is whispered softly, reverently. There are awards named after him. In a very real sense, science fiction as we know it today is the temple Campbell built. If you examine the history of the genre, there is a clear dividing line: there is everything that came before, and then, beginning when Campbell took over as editor of Astounding Science Fiction in 1938 and lasting for about 20 years, there is The Campbell Era.

The list of famous writers discovered and famous stories published by Campbell in those years reads like the combined who's who and Hall of Fame of science fiction. Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Lester del Rey, A.E. Van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon; the list goes on and on. And while Campbell was not the first to publish Isaac Asimov — that honor goes to Amazing Stories, for a story Campbell rejected — he did publish most of the series of short stories and novellas that were later collected and became Asimov's career-defining novels, Foundation and I, Robot.

Then again, Campbell also gave us L. Ron Hubbard and Dianetics, and in the 1950s was up to his elbows in the founding of Scientology. Worse, by the end of the 1950s Campbell apparently had come to believe that not only were psychic powers ("psi") real, but that he actually possessed them himself, and he took to telling people he hadn't flunked out of MIT but rather had been kicked out, because his radical ideas were too dangerous to scientific orthodoxy.

By 1959 the Campbell Era was effectively over, and even Heinlein was on record as saying he would rather not sell a story at all than have to deal with Campbell and his weird manias, minor madnesses, and obsessive, heavy-handed, meddling and rewriting in the guise of editing. In 1960 the name of the magazine was changed to Analog Science Fiction & Fact, in an effort to shed the taint of the past, but Campbell lingered on as editor until 1971, and it wasn't until Ben Bova took over after Campbell's death that Analog became the serious, staid, significant, and somewhat respectable magazine we know today.

And it is with all of this as backdrop that we discuss "The Cold Equations," by Tom Godwin. If you have not read this story already, do so now, as everything from here on out is spoiler. You will find the "The Cold Equations" online in the Baen Books anthology, The World Turned Upside Down, edit by David Drake, Jim Baen, and Eric Flint. God Bless the Baen Free Library.

With age, I've become a lot more sympathetic to Tom Godwin, perhaps because there are mornings when I look in the bathroom mirror and see his face. In 1953 Godwin was 38 years old and just launching what would turn out to be, sadly, a typically short literary career. He published 30-some short stories, mostly in Astounding and mostly in the 1950s, and then puttered on until his death in 1980 with perhaps a half-dozen more sales spread out over two decades, and some of them in some pretty dicey markets. (Remember The Man from U.N.C.L.E. magazine? Ed McBain's 87th Precinct Mystery Magazine?) He wrote three known novels: his first, The Survivors, flopped so badly that his original publisher didn't even bother to bind the last thousand books in the original print run of 5,000 copies, and it didn't even make it up to "modestly successful" level until it was retitled Space Prison, given a lurid pulp cover, and reissued in paperback a few years later. (In testimony to the fact that information rarely disappears entirely, though, you can find the complete text on Project Gutenberg.)

Campbell was an old-school editor. He did not merely buy and publish stories; he worked his authors, tossing out ideas, giving out assignments, and rewriting extensively. Before he took over the editor's chair at Astounding he had been a very successful and promising young writer — you've probably seen his story, "Who Goes There?" in one of its movie adaptations, and know it better by its movie title, The Thing — but after he became the editor he pretty much gave up writing fiction. When asked why, he reportedly said he no longer needed to write fiction, as the fun part was coming up with ideas, and now he had hundreds of writers eager to turn his ideas into stories.

That, reportedly, was the genesis of "The Cold Equations." Campbell came up with the idea and gave it to The New Guy, Godwin. (The story was either his fourth or fifth professional sale, and published less than a year after his first sale.) Godwin went and wrote the story, and Campbell rejected it because he didn't like the ending. According to Godwin, Campbell made him rewrite the ending three times before he finally got the message: he wasn't supposed to figure out a way to save the girl.

Once Godwin finally rewrote the story with the depressing ending Campbell wanted, Campbell bought it, and it was published in the August 1954 issue of Astounding. Thereafter Godwin's career meandered off to its ultimate dying whimper, while the story lived on, and was anthologized and reprinted beyond measure.

I first ran into "The Cold Equations" in 1973, in the anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, which was being used as a textbook in some university "science fiction as literature" course I took and in which "The Cold Equations" was presented as the apotheosis of the Campbellian hard science fiction style. I hated the story then. I hate, hate, hate it now.

Why? To recap, the plot of the story is this: an invariably fatal epidemic breaks out among the research party stationed on a distant, barely explored planet. It's not possible to reroute a starship to deliver the desperately needed medicine that will cure the disease and save the research party, so a starship passing through the system drops off a space-launch carrying the medicine and a pilot. The launch has exactly, to the drop, only enough fuel to get to the planet and land safely.

Tragically, a pretty young 18-year-old girl has stowed away on the launch, because her brother is stationed on this planet and she's hoping to see him. But the addition of her 110 pounds is just enough weight to throw all the calculations out of whack and guarantee that the launch will crash, the medicine will be destroyed, and the entire research party will die. Therefore, because of "the cold equations," the pilot must boot her cute little butt out of the airlock and kill her, the sooner the better. After all, that's what the regulations demand. This leads into a protracted death scene in which the girl is at first horrified, then tries to bargain, then has a tearful last radio conversation with her brother, and then finally, bravely, accepts her fate, steps into the airlock, and goes SPLAT!

The end.

So why do I hate this story so much? Leaving out the inherent idiocy of the premise — even back in 1973, I knew quite a few aerospace engineers, and the idea of any sane engineer designing a system that had such an insanely slim margin of safety that it couldn't survive even the tiniest deviation from the flight plan —
"Barton, you'll have to make another pass! There's a cow on the runway and you must delay landing until we chase her off!"

"Sorry guys, the flight plan didn't allow for that. I've come ninety gazillion miles to rescue you but I don't have one drop of extra fuel. Now I'm going to crash and you're all going to die. Screw you."
— but never mind, we could spend hours on all the insanities and stupidities needed to make this story work —
If it's an instant-death-penalty crime to stow away aboard an EDS launch, why don't they invest a buck-and-a-half in a frickin' lock on the launch bay door? Why don't they spend two minutes on a pre-flight inspection to make sure there are no stowaways on-board? If this sort of thing happens often enough to warrant a regulation covering the situation and for the crew back on board the Stardust to get jaded about it, why don't they anticipate the problem and take steps to either prevent it or make it survivable?
I'm sorry. I can get quite wound up. I really hate this story. Which is strange, because it's been said that if you don't like this story, you just plain don't like science fiction. But I always thought I sort of did like science fiction. I've even written some stories. Even won some awards for some of the things I've written. So why do I hate this particular story so very, very much?

Because it's a set-up. The entire point of this story is to set the pretty girl up for the inescapable grotesque death scene. The whole story is a lie and a cheat, and the author — at the direction of the editor, let's not let him off scot-free — has shamelessly stacked the deck, mercilessly tossing all logic and sense aside, in order to get to this only-possible horrific ending.

If this is science fiction, then so is A Nightmare on Elm Street.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the argument was often made that science fiction was pure drivel and mind-rot: that it was merely the pretentious member of the horror family, trying to escape its trashy pulp adventure roots by replacing boats, guns, and monsters with rocketships, rayguns, and aliens, and geared entirely towards the fantasies of pimply-faced boys who probably didn't know many actual girls. Further, the stereotypes abounded that the reason why the audience for science fiction was fixated on menacing pretty girls was because they were largely latent misogynists, who carried deep in their hearts a burning resentment over the fact that cheerleaders preferred football players to members of the chess club; that most science fiction fans secretly loved stories in which pretty girls — the kind of girls they never had a chance at dating — suffered terrible retribution because they were too silly, shallow, and pretty to pay attention to the nerds; and above all, that this suffering and retribution was best when it got gory, and came in the tentacles of some goggle-eyed alien monstrosity that daily produced twice its own body weight in drool or in the mandibles of some atomic mutant grasshopper the size of a two-car garage, or at the very least was terribly painful and messy.

Hence, the entire output of American International Pictures, among many others.

And thus, the argument I now submit to you. If "The Cold Equations" is the best possible example of serious, hard, science fiction, then hard science fiction is merely the extraordinarily pretentious member of the exploitation horror family, and we should just give up on all this prattle about "scientific credibility" and "the literature of ideas" right now and go straight for the big splatter scenes. Preferably involving pretty young girls with really big breasts.

Your thoughts?

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Friday Challenge - 7/25/08

The responses to the 7/18 Friday Challenge were slow in coming in — which is a good thing, I think. Once in a while it's worth spending a little time in thoughtful contemplation before you begin writing. Anyway, the contestants are, in the order their entries were received:

Rigel Kent
Passin Through

If I've missed anybody, please let me know, and I'll fix it ASAP. As always, you are encouraged to read, comment on, and vote for your favorite(s), and God willing and the creek don't rise, I'll announce a winner on Sunday evening.

Now, as for this week's Friday Challenge, most of you probably saw the head-start that I posted yesterday. If not, here it is, bubbled to the top again.

Commenting on my offhand observation in another post that I lead an interrupt-driven life, AJW308 asks:
Could BRB be another uploaded cybernetic intelligence?
Oh, dear God in Heaven, no! I spend all day working with state-of-tomorrow's-art supercomputers. The last thing I would ever entrust my consciousness to is something as frail and unstable as a heap of silicon-based electronic hardware and its associated roach-motel of a software stack!

In fact, there's a free story idea for you. How about if, in some not-too-distant future where implanted wi-fi brain augmentations are as common as Blackberrys are today, one of the leading implant vendors releases an inadequately tested OS software update that has the unfortunate side-effect of turning a certain subset of users into psychotic homicidal cannibals? And the hero of the story is a lone, brave, software tester who is trying to figure out just exactly which combination of base software, patches, updates, aftermarket mods, and open source spaghetti code caused the problem and how to fix it — while at the same time fighting off his own implant's regression errors, which are continually throwing his brain into earlier and more primitive patterns of thinking!

There, bet that is a story you could sell to Analog.

In fact, whadaya think? Shall we give you a head-start on tomorrow, and declare this one to be the next Friday Challenge?

By overwhelming acclaim, this is now the current Friday Challenge, so have at it. In response to a comment from newcomer Yorick, though, I guess it's also time to reiterate the remarkably casual rules for this contest.

The Friday Challenge works like this. Each week, I spot you an idea, a question, or if I have an extraordinary amount of free time, the opening paragraphs of a story. Then it's your turn to pick it up, run with it, and see where it goes. The deadline for each Friday Challenge is midnight the following Thursday, although this is more of a bungee cord than an actual deadline, with links to the received entries being posted, along with a new challenge, on Friday. Regardless of whether or not you have submitted an entry, everyone is encouraged to read, comment on, and vote for their favorites among the entries received, and the winner (or sometimes winners) is|are announced on Sunday evening. To make things slightly more interesting, we always play for what's behind Door #2, except on occasions when a special prize is offered — for example, that vintage Captain Planet videotape, which strangely enough, remains unclaimed.

As for the mechanism for submitting an entry: there are three known ways. If you have your own website or blog, the easiest way to submit an entry is by posting it on your own site, and then posting a link in the Comments attached to this post. If you don't have your own site or for some reason don't want Ranting Room readers following you there, the next easiest way to enter is by posting your entry in its entirety in the Comments attached to this post.

However, HaloScan has a number of secret undocumented limits on posts — and we're discovering new ones all the time — so if you run afoul of HaloScan's secret limits, there is always the Third Way: put your entry in a plain text, rtf, Word, or pdf file, and email it to me at This is the guaranteed slowest way to get your entry in front of other readers, but I promise I will get around to PDF'ing and posting it. Eventually.

Any more questions? Ask away. Otherwise, the Challenge has been issued; you have until next Thursday to make your reply. Good luck.


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Global Warming Update

Writing in The Australian a few days ago, David Evans offers up some important and under-reported new information about the global warming crisis. Who is this David Evans character, and why should we care what he thinks?
I devoted six years to carbon accounting, building models for the Australian Greenhouse Office. I am the rocket scientist who wrote the carbon accounting model (FullCAM) that measures Australia's compliance with the Kyoto Protocol, in the land use change and forestry sector.
Oh, that David Evans. Well, then he must be one of those pernicious Global Warming Deniers who must be silenced, right?
When I started that job in 1999 the evidence that carbon emissions caused global warming seemed pretty good: CO2 is a greenhouse gas, the old ice core data, no other suspects.

The evidence was not conclusive, but why wait until we were certain when it appeared we needed to act quickly? Soon government and the scientific community were working together and lots of science research jobs were created. We scientists had political support, the ear of government, big budgets, and we felt fairly important and useful (well, I did anyway). It was great. We were working to save the planet.
Gore protect us, it's worse! He's a believer who's fallen into apostasy! Why, in the name of Gaia and all that's holy, oh why?
But since 1999 new evidence has seriously weakened the case that carbon emissions are the main cause of global warming, and by 2007 the evidence was pretty conclusive that carbon played only a minor role and was not the main cause of the recent global warming. As Lord Keynes famously said, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"
Facts? How dare you try to confuse us with facts! Er, what facts would those be, by the way?
The new ice cores show that in the past six global warmings over the past half a million years, the temperature rises occurred on average 800 years before [Emphasis added, ~brb] the accompanying rise in atmospheric carbon. Which says something important about which was cause and which was effect.

None of these points are controversial. The alarmist scientists agree with them, though they would dispute their relevance.

The last point was known and past dispute by 2003, yet Al Gore made his movie in 2005 and presented the ice cores as the sole reason for believing that carbon emissions cause global warming. In any other political context our cynical and experienced press corps would surely have called this dishonest and widely questioned the politician's assertion.
Now that is going too far! To hint that Al Gore, blessed be His name, is merely yet another common lying self-serving politician trying to panic the voters in order to increase his own political pow—

I'm sorry. I can't do this anymore. Keep a straight face, I mean. So rather than quote and comment on the entire article, I'll just give you a link to the original and tell you that it's full of good stuff and definitely worth reading in its entirety. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Reading Baby Love

Hey, that's right, this blog is supposed to be about books and writing. So I suppose I should talk about books once in a while, hmm?

It wouldn't exactly be a foreign topic. In the past two months I've read ten books I can think of, although a few others probably have fallen out of memory already. Five military history, one novel, one short-story anthology, three contemporary political; these last three were selected as a set, to get "triametrically" opposed perspectives on a highly controversial subject, and I'll have more to write about them later. But the last book in the troika was so blasted heavy and depressing that I needed something light and funny as counterbalance, and Sunday afternoon, as I was cleaning my office, I had the good luck to stumble across the half-read copy of Baby Love by Rebecca Walker that I'd been reading in early June. I really hadn't meant to give up on this book halfway through. I'd just, as so often happens to me, marked my page, put it aside, and then been interrupted by something of greater urgency and never gotten back to it.

This happens to me a lot. I lead an interrupt-driven life.

Baby Love, if the title doesn't seem familiar, is the pregnancy journal of Rebecca Walker, the daughter of famous feminist literary icon Alice Walker. The full title is, Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence, and back in early June, when I was exactly halfway through it, I wrote a semi-review. I was interrupted at literally the halfway point; at the beginning of chapter 5, at almost the exact mid-point in the page count, and midway through Walker's second trimester. Picking it up again Sunday, I had no trouble at all slipping back into the narrative flow, and in two days I finished it off.

This book is very engaging, thoughtful, and well-written. It is one of the most amazingly positive and life-affirming books that I have had the pleasure of reading in a long time. It is also laugh-out-loud funny, and in places read-the-good-bits-out-loud funny, although I'm not always sure it was intended to be. Perhaps this is the sort of book that is somewhat mildly amusing to women, but absolutely hilarious to a man who has suffered — and I do mean suffered — through his wife's pregnancy. For example, it is just hugely entertaining to watch as Rebecca evolves in nine short months from a militant macrobiotic Northern California vegan type, who in April can spend pages agonizing over the ecological impact of the typically overfed American diet, to someone who in late September can write:
Just back from a speaking engagement at Carnegie Mellon. Someone asked if I am experiencing pregnancy as the ultimate in Womanhood. It was an interesting question. I said that I feel more in touch with the animal qualities of the species, rather than the gendered ones. My sense of smell is heightened, I am ferociously protective of my developing offspring, my body is going through changes beyond my control in the service of species survival.

I told her that I really feel like an animal when I am hungry. In those moments, when I am on the hunt for my next meal, I feel out of control, led entirely by instinct. When I get to the food, I can barely observe basic etiquette. I want to tear at the food, to wolf it down. And it's not all eco-friendly, either. I want big, thick, juicy steaks, and whole chickens. I want four scrambled eggs and six pieces of bacon. And then when I finish all that, I want a box of chocolate-covered donuts.
And a month later:
All I can think about, besides being bored to death, is food. What can I eat next? In the last two hours I have had two bowls of chicken soup, three pieces of toast with chicken, two soy ice cream sandwiches, two huge glasses of organic lemonade, an apple, a pomegranate, and as I write this, I've got designs on a steak, a few pieces of sliced turkey, some brown rice, and an orange.
Until at last, on the very day she goes into labor, she evolves into her final form: five o'clock I was so hungry I felt I could eat the headboard off my new bed. Glen brought me what I craved: quick, greasy take-out that I ate with abandon. A huge hamburger with onions, bacon, and cheddar cheese, a Greek salad and two orders of French fries disappeared within minutes.
All of which is just a run-up for the big labor and delivery scene, of course, which after months of carefully planning the perfect wholistic birthing scenario, complete with music, massage, birthing coaches, and aromatherapy, turns out to be a real scream. As in, "I WANT AN EPIDURAL!"

Followed by the sobering realization that, if she'd had that perfectly natural organic Third World sort of childbirth she'd thought she wanted when this whole adventure began, her son would have died from meconium aspiration shortly after birth.

In sum, now that I've finished the whole thing, I still give Baby Love a strong recommendation. It's an engaging, funny, at times deeply ironic, and at times utterly heart-grabbing narrative. Rebecca Walker is an interesting voice — definitely not for everyone, for reasons listed in my original semi-review, but interesting nonetheless — and in the end, she even manages to work in some good advice for aspiring writers. It involves developing a relaxed attitude about wearing strained carrots.

Rating: FOUR STARS. My original semi-review follows.

Original post: 6/04/08

As writers, we're supposed to be engaged in a relentless pursuit of the truth — if not the literal truth, then at least our own personal emotional truth. Regardless of where it leads, whose toes get stepped on, or how much it hurts, it's all (we're told) about finding and expressing something we can call a truth.

The problem with doing this is, of course, is that if you're lucky, your children might someday read all those dangerous emotional truths you gave vent to when you were much younger, more intense, and less cautious, and worse, they might then turn around and write their truth about you.

Case in point, Rebecca Walker: writer, activist, feminist, daughter of literary lioness Alice Walker and New York attorney Mel Leventhal, and author of Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence.

Ms Walker first came to my attention when someone sent me a link to this interview with her in the U.K. Daily Mail: How My Mother's Fanatical Feminist Views Tore Us Apart. If you haven't yet read it, it's good stuff. In it, Ms Walker makes a strong, positive, life-affirming, pro-woman case for motherhood, and closes with:
Even now, I meet women in their 30s who are ambivalent about having a family. They say things like: 'I'd like a child. If it happens, it happens.' I tell them: 'Go home and get on with it because your window of opportunity is very small.' As I know only too well.

Then I meet women in their 40s who are devastated because they spent two decades working on a PhD or becoming a partner in a law firm, and they missed out on having a family. Thanks to the feminist movement, they discounted their biological clocks. They've missed the opportunity and they're bereft.

Feminism has betrayed an entire generation of women into childlessness. It is devastating.

But far from taking responsibility for any of this, the leaders of the women's movement close ranks against anyone who dares to question them...
When I showed this interview to Karen, however, she pointed out to me that we already had a review copy of Ms Walker's latest book, Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood After a Lifetime of Ambivalence, on the shelf, and it'd been sitting there, unread and unreviewed, for some time.


Okay, uh — actually, I'm about halfway through Baby Love now, and as difficult as it may be to believe, I'm really enjoying it. Technically, it's well-written, engaging, and a fast read. Structurally, it's Ms Walker's pregnancy journal, and it's deadly funny. If you're a woman and you've been through a pregnancy, you may relate; if you're a man and you've suffered (and I do mean suffered) through your wife's pregnancy, you'll definitely relate. There is an absolutely hilarious sit-com tucked inside this book, and it's simply screaming to get out.

I mean, think of it this way: here's Rebecca, this extremely intelligent, highly educated, very accomplished, and stunningly self-absorbed career woman, who at age thirty-something suddenly finds herself deliriously happy to be pregnant, forced to consider the remote possibility that she perhaps is not the center of the universe, and instantly flying off in a hundred directions all at once. She's living in a house in Mendocino that seems to be in a constant state of unfinished remodeling, courtesy of Carl the aging hippie handyman; battling bouts of morning sickness between fly-in assaults by her mother (if this is a sit-com, then Alice Walker comes off as Endora, only without Agnes Moorehead's charm, intelligence, or sense of humor); and her life is just one dizzying round after another of utterly droll interactions with your standard battery of Northern California therapists, herbalists, publicists, Buddhists, Xanax, ob/gyns, photographers, editors, and organic homeopathic consultants. She slips effortlessly from prattling on about Big Issues in Third World Women-of-Color EmpowermentSpeak to jetting off to attend the gala Hollywood premiere of this movie, have lunch with that New York editor, or be the keynote speaker at some other Terribly Meaningful conference in Seattle. On one page she can be simply agonizing over the horrendous impact that just one American baby has on the global environment (as opposed to the much more sensible carbon-load of, say, a Third World baby), and then a page later she can be bemoaning the fact that Prada doesn't have a maternity line and exulting over her discovery of this wonderful little Japanese boutique where she found just the perfect pair of maternity slacks, because there is just no way she'd be caught dead looking like some pregnant women at a strip-mall "wearing beige chinos and an oversized T-shirt with a company logo on it."

And through it all, her life partner and the baby's father, Glen, is just this solid rock of calm rationality in the turbulent overflowing tidal pool of Rebecca's hormones, emotions, and temporary insanities.

Is this book for everyone? Hardly. For one thing it's simply dripping with black humor and irony, and such reading is not to everyone's taste. For another there's the matter of how Rebecca's mother, legendary author Alice Walker, is depicted: give her a pointed black hat and a flying broom and the caricature would be complete. Then again Rebecca can probably be forgiven for seeing Alice this way, as discovering as a teenager that your mother once wrote and published a famous poem comparing your birth to a disastrous and tragic illness can't be anything good.

Finally, there is the matter of Rebecca's bisexuality, which will no doubt put some people off this book. As I get further into the story, though, I can't help but read this aspect of her complex and conflicted personality as being not so much lesbianism as Lesbitarianism, and the predictable reaction of a top-of-her-class Yale-educated young feminist to her horrifying discovery, at age 20, that what she really wants to do with her life is drop out of college, marry the handsome young man she's met while on a trip to Africa, and become his wife and the mother of a whole lot of babies.

Still, if you are, like I am, a person who's struggled for years to understand what's really going on inside the minds of modern American college-educated feminists, this book is definitely worth checking out. Four Stars.

Monday, July 21, 2008

And the winner is...

So here we are, Monday night already. Just as no plans for the week seem to survive contact with Monday morning, no plans for the weekend seem to survive past about 10 a.m. on Saturday morning. I had serious intentions...

And once again, my best intentions were nibbled to death by ducks, leaving me with only a disordered heap of unappetizing obligations. By the time I finally made it through them and got to Sunday evening, I was too tired to think, much less write.

Enough excuses. In the category of ecological catastrophe, the contestants are:

rycamor: I think you're right. It goes beyond finding dystopia simply more interesting that utopia. I think people are hardwired to anticipate disaster, and that this trait has proven survival value. Consider the fable of The Ant and The Grasshopper, which is something we teach our children at a very early age. We make a virtue of anticipating and planning for disaster.

For a moment, your comment, "I'm not sure that I would want ALL humans to not have a care in the world about the future of the environment, world population, and such things," suggested an interesting base idea for a story, but then I realized that H.G. Wells had already written it: The Time Machine.

snowdog: Just cracked me up. I loved it. Especially with that wonderful graphic. I think there is a YouTube video just waiting to be made here. With some bad Terry Gilliam-ish animation, it'd be hilarious.

Bane: I don't know what I can add to the comments that have been posted already. It works; it's complete; it's a damn good story. Good work. Keep it up. Please reconsider your decision not to publish professionally.

Passin Through: Very true and totally right. I'd like to see you stretch out a bit and tackle a topic at a little more length, though.

Vidad: Four words: Get that novel written!

Rigel Kent: Sadly, I have had conversations exactly like that. You nailed it dead on, but also managed to make it a lot more entertaining than it is to actually be in a conversation like that.

After serious consideration and discussion, we would like to give the award for this week to Bane — but Bane has, for personal reasons that I cannot fault, declined the award and directed us to give it to the next in line, and this week that person is — disregarding my own personal deep and endless amusement at the subject of bovine flatulence — Rigel Kent. So Rigel, come on down and pick your prize from the newly updated Door #2 page.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Violence: Some Very Ugly Truths

I hadn't planned to comment on this story, but given further developments, comments now seem necessary. This one has been burning up the local blogosphere and radio talk shows for the past six days, and in the past 48 hours has shown up on Power Line, Vox Popoli, the Twin Cities Carry forum, MNGunTalk, and Powerline again, among other places. I expect it's on Free Republic but haven't looked. I'm only surprised it hasn't become a flashing-light headline on Drudge.

The simple facts are these: on July 4, a family went to Valleyfair, a local amusement park, to celebrate the 4th and watch the fireworks. Afterwards, in the parking lot, a young man allegedly sexually groped the family's 12-year-old daughter, which led to an altercation, which led to the father of the family being beaten and left unconscious, with a fractured skull and possible intra-cranial bleeding. The father remains in the hospital, with no further word on his condition. Seven young men, the youngest being 14 years old and the rest being between the ages of 18 and 20-something, have been arrested, charged with felony assault, and released on bail, while an eighth reportedly is still being sought.

What brings me to comment is not the vicious nature of the crime, nor the typical Minnesota law enforcement practice of catch-and-release, nor even the usual insipid Star Tribune editorial blaming these young men's animalistic behavior on the usual litany of "root causes," but rather the vast outpouring since of all the overheated opinions from all the mall ninjas, carry-permit holders, would-be martial artists, and just flat-out racists eager to tell the world how things would have gone down differently if they had been there. Sorry, folks, but it's time to throw a few buckets of cold water on all your Charles Bronson-inspired fantasies.

Let me preface this by saying: I've been in real fights — not many, because I'm a fast learner. I've witnessed real fights. I have a carry permit and have shot competitively for years (IPSC/USPSA). I've hunted game big and small, I'm related by marriage to six current-duty or retired law-enforcement officers, and my father was something worse than a cop; he was a teacher and basketball coach in a ghetto school district. So what I have to say is based not on theory, but on observation, either first- or second-hand.

1. Real Fights Happen Fast. The time that elapses between the initial escalation of shouting and shoving, to condition TSHTF, to it being all over with somebody bleeding on the ground, is usually measured in seconds, not minutes. The advantage the bad guys have is that the typical Good Samaritan bystander's stream of consciousness is something like, "What's happening? Is what I think is happening really happening? I need a better look! My God, it really is happening! I can't believe it! What, are we all going to just stand here and let it happen?" [Look around at other bystanders.] "Are you going to do something? How about you? Well, we should do something, don't you think? What do you think we should do? Okay, let's do it!"

And by that time, the fight is over, one guy is on the ground, and the guy who put him there has vanished, unless...

2. Real Fights End Under One Condition Only: when the loser is unwilling or unable to continue fighting and the winner is satisfied that he's beaten the loser enough. Nothing else short of massive overwhelming physical or psychological force exerted by a third party will stop the fight before the winner decides he's dished out enough. And that's where you come in, right, Mr. Mall Ninja? Wrong — but before we address that, let's make a few other points clear.

3. Real Fights Are Not Boxing Matches. There is no such thing as a fair fight between two men who are equally ready, able, and willing to fight. Rather, most fights I've seen develop like this:

Guy 'A': [rhetorical assertion]

Guy 'B': [colorful rebuttal]

Guy 'A': [restatement of initial thesis and clarification]

Guy 'B': [expanded rebuttal with introduction of new supporting evidence]

Guy 'A': [summation]

Guy 'B': [refutation]

Guy 'A': @#($*&@#$&!!!!

Guy 'B's girlfriend: "Come on honey, it's not worth fighting over. Let's go." [Grabs Guy 'B's right arm.]

Guy 'A': [sees momentary unfair advantage and punches 'B' in the face, breaking 'B's jaw and three teeth. 'B' collapses like a stunned steer in a slaughterhouse.]

Alternately, and more dangerous than being sandbagged by his wife or girlfriend, 'B' may have a moment of idiotic nobility and decide to turn his back and walk away with his hands in his pockets, in which case 'A' most likely jumps on his back and punches him hard in the back of the head.

I have never seen a fight between two men who were equally ready to fight. One participant always thought they were still in the "shouting at each other" stage while the other had already progressed to the "I'm gonna beat the living $#!+ out of you" stage. The guy who lands the first solid sucker punch usually wins.

4. Size matters. My apologies to several very sincere ladies I know who are very serious about their martial arts training, but it doesn't matter how many Joss Whedon movies you've seen. A 300-pound thug beats a 100-pound pixie every time, no matter how good your chosen martial arts skills are, unless the thug was not all that serious about beating you up in the first place.

5. If you take a hard hit in the top, sides, or back of the head, you will go down. It's a combination of shock and reflex. Most likely you will also try to curl up in a ball and protect your head. If your opponent is not satisfied with this state of affairs, this defensive posture in turn only makes you easier to kick and stomp.

If you take a hard hit in the nose/mouth area, you may remain standing, but you won't be happy. You have a lot of very sensitive nerve endings in that area and broken noses tend to bleed profusely.

A bottle broken over the head does not shatter with a comedic crash and knock the target momentarily silly. Beer bottles shatter into razor-sharp shards that cut the crap out of the victim's head, and not infrequently, the hand of the wielder as well. Scalp wounds bleed profusely. A wine bottle is harder than a human skull and is a deadly weapon. A rock in the fist is a deadly weapon. Steel-toed boots are deadly weapons, if someone is down on the ground and you're kicking his head.

After taking a hard hit in the cranial area, the instinct to curl up and protect your head is extraordinarily strong and can only be overcome through extensive conditioning. Military forces, police forces, martial arts schools, and prison phys ed programs accordingly spend extraordinary amounts of time conditioning men to take a hit and respond by unthinking reflex and attack with overwhelming violence. If you have not had that conditioning, it is more than likely your survival instincts will take over, and you will fall down and curl up into fetal position.

6. Alcohol is powerful and dangerous stuff. Alcohol reduces inhibitions, impairs judgment, heightens emotional responses, reduces effective intelligence, deadens pain, slows the reflexes, and loosens the tongue — all of which can turn a situation from unpleasant to dangerous in a heartbeat. I've seen guys get into a world of hurt simply by shooting off their mouths about the wrong quarterback in the wrong sports bar after a few beers. Worse, I've seen guys get into a world of double-hurt because their wife or girlfriend had a few drinkies too many and had no clue how loud, opinionated, stupid, sluttishly flirtatious, or offensive she was getting.

I have seen a drunk swing, miss, hit a concrete wall and break several bones in his hand, and then keep punching, because he was too drunk to realize how badly he was hurt and how much pain he should be feeling. Conversely, I've seen a drunk collapse in blubbering hysteria and demand to be taken to the Emergency Hospital after accidentally biting his own tongue and spitting out a little blood.

And of course, in Minneapolis right now two cops are on paid administrative leave, because they got very drunk at a party, and when the neighbors complained about the noise, they thought the reasonable thing to do was to leave — and as they drove away, to stick their service sidearms out the sunroof of their car and empty the magazines into the air.

7. As powerful and dangerous as alcohol is, adrenalin is more powerful. Adrenalin is part of the "fight or flight" reflex; it temporarily gives you abnormal strength and quickened reactions. Unfortunately, it also gives you tunnel vision, twitchy reflexes, and a strange form of impaired hearing. I have seen shooters who could punch out the X-ring all day long in slow-fire turn into clods who couldn't hit the broad side of a barn when the pressure was on. I have experienced being so pumped on adrenalin that I couldn't hear the sound of my own gun going off. And I have read of many documented cases where some unlucky person was so jacked up on adrenalin that he apparently could not see or hear the police officers who were shouting, "DROP THE GUN OR WE'LL SHOOT!"

8. Cops are not superheroes. They are neither omniscient nor telepathic. Most of them are honest and mean well, but when all is said and done they are union-wage civil servants, and at the end of the day they are far less interested in winning medals for heroism than in going home to their families in one piece. There's even a bit of bumper-sticker philosophy I've seen cops use that sums up the idea: 1* (It's pronounced, "one ass to risk.")

What this means to you, Mr. Concealed Carry Vigilante, is that any cop responding to the scene will react first and foremost to the most obvious and immediate threat to his safety, which is the guy with the gun. And the cop will be running in full adrenalin response mode, too, so you can shout "I'M THE GOOD GUY!" and wave your carry permit all you want, and he won't hear you or see it. He will just see GUN — and if it looks like it's coming anywhere close to being pointed in him, he will drop the hammer first and answer questions at the coroner's inquest.

There was an ugly incident of this nature two or three years back in St. Paul. A certain Mr. Innocent got jumped in the street by a Mr. Perp, who had a gun. It turned into a wrestling match, and Mr. Innocent managed to get the gun away from Mr. Perp and knock him flat. Whereupon the cops arrived on the scene, and seeing a man with a gun standing over another man who was laying in the street, they proceeded to shoot Mr. Innocent quite immediately and thoroughly dead. At the coroner's inquest, the official verdict was that it was a shame Mr. Innocent was so stupid as to pick up Mr. Perp's gun. Too bad, so sad, end of story. Cops protect their own, first and always. What else did you expect?

9. Bad guys are bad. This does not mean they are stupid, cowardly, or suicidal. Again, I don't care how many movies you've seen in which the bad guys politely queue up to get their butts kicked by the Lone Hero. If you are going up against a group of bad men, they will not wait for their chance to take you on one-on-one, they will not step back in awe as you take on their biggest guy and run away in terror if you beat him, and they almost certainly will not hold still and wait for you to get a good sight picture if you draw your Royal Blue Smith & Wesson Custom Shop Model 29 Classic .44 Magnum loaded with Federal 240-grain Hydra-Shok hollow points from your hand-tooled customized super-duper Galcomatic official Clint Eastwood™ Signature Model concealed carry holster. More likely, if you draw a gun, they will scatter into the crowd of innocent bystanders and spray shots back in your general direction if they have guns — in the process quite likely hitting many of those innocent bystanders — while if you wade into them unarmed, trusting to your superior kung fu, you will most likely disappear under a mass of pounding elbows and stomping feet, to be squeegeed off the pavement sometime later the next day.

10. A trained and resolute group of men, moving together with common purpose, can readily intimidate and control a mob ten times their size. The military depends on this, as do police forces and prison guards. Gangs also depend on this principal, and it works. If they know what they intend to do, by the time anyone else figures out what they're up to and tries to organize spontaneously to stop it, they're already done and leaving the scene, and some poor s.o.b. is laying in a puddle of blood on the pavement.

As a corollary, an organized group of men temporarily shares the courage of its bravest member. A disorganized mob has the courage of its least-brave member, and is easily cowed, startled, and caused to run in panic. This is why, from Ancient Greece right up through the Civil War, there was so much emphasis on "holding the line." If one man broke and ran, they all might break and run, and then the battle would turn into a rout.

11. Fond as you may be of it, your handgun is not Mj√∂lnir, the Magic Hammer of Thor. It will not seek out only those deserving death, and unless you are extraordinarily good and lucky, it will not smite them to their doom instantly in a single stroke. The only thing that shuts down an adrenalin-charged fighting human instantly is a solid hit on the hindbrain or upper spinal cord. Police blotters and the annals of the Medal of Honor both are filled with stories of men who fought on and did terrible damage to their enemies after receiving fatal wounds, including grievous wounds to the forebrain. For that matter, police blotters are also filled with stories of 300-pound thugs who have been shot with handguns at point-blank range and come out of it none the worse for wear — because the bullet lodged in their adipose tissue, and never penetrated far enough to reach anything vital.

As for heart shots; they're overrated. I've watched a deer run a hundred yards after taking a high-powered rifle bullet right through the upper two chambers of the heart, collapsing only when his blood pressure had dropped so far that he finally lost consciousness. For that matter I've had the experience of being quite conscious, alert, and aware while watching my own heart rate flatline on the bedside cardiac monitor, which is not an experience I'd wish on anybody. You can stay conscious for quite some time without a working heart, and if so motivated do some very serious damage during that time.

12. Finally, and it really peeves me to have to say this, we don't know the race of the victim. We know the race of the perpetrators; they're all black, look like gangstas, and several of them already have lengthy adult criminal records. But in the worst of the mall ninja commentaries on this case — the posts that seemingly come from fellows upset that the dry cleaners couldn't get the soot stains from the last cross-burning out of their hoods — it's plainly assumed the victim and his family are white, and that this is a black-on-white gang crime.

That assumption can't be supported. Valleyfair draws customers from all over the metro area. The police have not released the names of the victim or his family, for fear of witness intimidation. (Good, hope that works, 'cause right now there's another Minneapolis cop out on paid administrative leave because he got caught selling the names and addresses of police informants and confidential witnesses to a gang member for a benjamin a head.) But based on the speech markers in the few quotes from the victim's wife that have been printed in the paper, the victim and his family may very well be black, too. Does that change how you perceive the story?

Or, here's another alternative. I've already heard a gentleman of color on one of the local radio stations explain that the way it's being told in his neighborhood is that there never was any sexual assault on the 12-year-old daughter in the first place. Rather, the victim and his family are white, true enough, but it was when mean old racist white daddy caught his little white blond-haired blue-eyed darling making out in the parking lot with the 14-year-old black boy that he started beating up the black kid, and it was only then that the older black men jumped in to defend their little brother.

Personally, this last story sounds like a total crock of rancid dingo's kidneys to me and absolutely pegs my BS meter, but the point is, we weren't there. We don't know what really happened. So we all of this posturing and chest-pounding about what would have happened if we were there is just so much jacking-off.

This story doesn't have a clean ending. True crime stories rarely do. But now that I've laid out some ugly truths, let's think this through. You are with your wife and children, in the poorly lit parking lot of a popular amusement park, slightly after midnight. You have your cell phone in your pocket; you also have your favorite weapon of choice concealed on your person, and despite its being the 4th of July, you've been a good boy and haven't had a single alcoholic beverage all day. There are lots of people you don't know around, walking to their cars; when suddenly you hear a woman scream, and look to see a man you don't know falling to the ground, while being beaten and kicked by seven or eight thuggish-looking young black men. (It's hard to tell exactly how many are assaulting him because they're moving fast.) You can't see the man or his family well-enough to determine race: they might be white, they might be black, they might be Mexicans; heck, they might even be Muslims. Nobody else is doing anything except standing there gaping in horror. There isn't a single police officer or rentacop anywhere in sight. You don't know what happened thirty seconds before you arrived on the scene; at this exact moment, this is everything you know. Clearly, though, if you always wanted to be a Lone Hero, this is your big chance.

So, realistically, now: what do you do?

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Friday Challenge - 7/18/08

Nobody is snowdogging it this week and nothing showed up in the email, so here are the entries for the 7/11/08 Friday Challenge, which as you may remember was to write your best rant about ecological catastrophe and/or TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It). The contestants are:

rycamor (or was that Rigel Kent?)
snowdog (who probably is not happy that his name has become a verb)
Bane (who still hasn't claimed his prize from last week)
Passin Through (who I don't have a parenthetical comment about)
Vidad (who is a TOTAL SELLOUT!)
Rigel Kent (or was that rycamor?)

The winner(s) will be announced on Sunday.

As for this week's Friday Challenge, I have a toughie for you. Inspired by the birth of Rycamor's new daughter, I want you to write a letter to a child born in this year, to be delivered on his or her 15th birthday in the year 2023. This can be to a real child you know or to an imaginary child; your own child, or someone else's. If it helps you to focus, Rycamor and Mrs. Rycamor have graciously agreed to let you write this letter to their new-born daughter, Caroline Emilie. (So keep it PG-rated, okay?)

Tell this child something he or she really needs to know: about life, about spirituality, or maybe about the world he or she lives in and how it got to be the way it is.

As always, we're playing by the rather casual rules of the Friday Challenge, and playing for whatever is behind Door #2. The deadline for entries is midnight Thursday, 7/24/08, with entries to be posted on Friday, 7/25, and a winner to be announced on Sunday, 7/27. So, ready? Set?

Start thinking!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Fame, Fortune, and All That. Again.

Commenting on a two-month-old thread ("The Old Synth Guy Speaks," 5/808), Marc Vanderloo writes:
Devo are so overrated it's unbelieveable. Their Wikipedia entry is evidently written by a non-critical fan. The 'story' reads well, but the music doesn't back it up. 'Whip It' is simply rubbish and god knows where all that tech savvy genius was going because it wasn't being channelled into anything musical, nothing sounds experimental or 'zany', just drab. Even for its time. I've seen Devo topping Kraftwerk on lists of great electronic musicians, this only leads me to to the conclusion that such a list is a personal (probably nostalgic) sort of list.
Looking at this as a fan: sure, okay, whatever. Arguing that X is better than Y is one of the great joys of fandom. Who's more important: The Beatles or The Rolling Stones? Go to it. Have fun. Let me know what you decide.

This morning I'm more concerned about this as a creative person, because this is one of those sorts of arguments that can cause a writer to develop acid reflux disease or waste his life in useless envy. Tom Disch went to his grave angry that Algis Budrys had had a more successful career than he did (and also nursing a grudge over a bad review of one of Disch's novels that Budrys wrote in 1965), and one of the last and not terribly attractive thoughts expressed on Disch's blog was that at least he'd outlived that "mean, envious, fat old diabetic." (Budrys died in early June.)

This sort of thing will drive you nuts, if you let it. Is it fair that Devo are better known than Kraftwerk? Is it fair that Paris Hilton is better known than, well, pretty much anybody? Is it fair that accomplished rockabilly guitar player Carl Perkins wrote and recorded a modest regional hit single, "Blue Suede Shoes," and then six months later some greasy-haired kid from Memphis recorded a note-for-note cover of the tune with just slightly less country twang in the mix, and Elvis went on to become a legend while Perkins remained a footnote in musical history?

Is it fair that J.K. Rowling became richer than Croessus writing painfully derivative fantasy books that became money-magnet movies and spawned a seemingly infinite line of spinoff merchandise, while Lloyd Alexander went to his grave as the answer to the trivia question, "Which writer's Newbery Award-winning children's novel series, The Chronicles of Prydain, was maladapted into which Disney movie, which was both the only full-length Disney animated feature ever to lose money in its original theatrical release and the most expensive flop to that date in Disney's history?" (Points to you if you knew that the second half of the answer was, The Black Cauldron.)

Is it fair? Whatever gave you the idea that life was fair? People can be fair, from time to time, in individual cases, and you should always strive to be, but the creative life is a crap-shoot, and Fame is not merely a fickle bitch-goddess, she is an idiot bitch-goddess. (And here I am talking about Paris Hilton again.) The process by which She picks winners and losers in the Great Lottery only makes sense in retrospect, and then only with a certain amount of tap-dancing and hand-waving, and time spent courting Her favor is time wasted that you could have spent creating something. Worrying about whether you will receive the blessings of Fame is the sort of thing that causes writers to seize up with writer's block, which should more accurately described as literary constipation, or worse, to one day throw down your pen and declare, "Screw this! I'm gonna write books about an overweight Southern lesbian vampire detective who solves crimes with the aid of her psychic cat!"

Is it fair? Let the fanboys argue over that. You are a creative talent, and the most important thing you can do is create.

So get creating. Now.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Re Andre Norton

Papapete writes:
Andre Norton was the first science fiction author I sought out. It's too bad that so much of her stuff is out of print now.
Me too. As I look at the list of published books on her web site, it's amazing how many titles still leap out at me after forty-five years. The Time Traders books, the Forerunner books, the Dipple books, the Solar Queen books, the Free Traders books...

As for Norton's books being out of print now; it's not merely too bad, it's a travesty. Many of you Tennessee folks should have seen this article, which ran in The Tennessean about a week ago. The reason Norton's books are largely out of print now is that the rights to them have been tied up in litigation since Norton's death in 2005. Despite Norton's expressed wishes that her estate be managed by her longtime caregiver, Sue Stewart, including a video deposition to that effect and supporting statements from many who knew her well and worked closely with her, in her will she did grant some vaguely defined "posthumous publication" rights to a certain well-funded fan in Texas, and for the past few years he's kept the estate tied up in court and the reprint rights therefore in limbo. Worse, a few weeks ago, some crackhead judge in Nashville actually ruled that, on the basis of this fan's having a "greater appreciation" for the literary works than Norton's chosen caretakers, Norton's will was void, and control of the estate was awarded to this fan.

The judge's decision is being appealed, of course, and according to people whose judgment I trust, it would be pure insanity for this ruling to be allowed to stand. But in the meantime, no publisher in his or her right mind is going to even think about reissuing any of Norton's books for fear of being invited to the litigation party.

Let this be a lesson to you. As I've said over and over again, It's all about who controls the rights. Even if you don't think your intellectual property rights are worth a plugged nickel, at least for the benefit of your heirs, make sure the ownership status is clear. Because you just never know what might happen.

After all, John Kennedy Toole's novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, was published, won the Pulitzer Prize, and became a hotly sought-after movie property eleven years after Toole committed suicide in despair at over being unable to get it published...

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Big Payoff

This one showed up in my email the other day:

Just finished CP & I loved it! I'm 48 & until today considered myself an EX-science fiction fan. (I was weaned on Paul French [nee Dr. Isaac Asimov] & Lucky Starr, gobbling up quantum physics @ the tender age of 8. What am accomplished teacher he was, I'm sad he's lost to us now.) I'd all but given up hope over 10 yrs. ago...

You have rekindled the excitement of the un-considered again in me. I will be once more haunting the fiction section, knowing that jewels still exist as yet undiscovered (by me anyways).

Thank you again for allowing genuine enjoyment back into my leisure.

Christopher H.
Omaha, NE
Maybe it marks me as a hopeless amateur, but for me, this is what it's all about. The money from a good fiction sale is nice and validating, and I hope someday to be able to comment on just how nice and validating it feels like to land a lucrative movie deal. The peer awards are great for the old and much-abused ego, and look very nice sitting on the shelf. But in the end, it's the fan mail that gets to me. No, not the simple flattery or the obsequious stuff — "Dear Mr. Bethke, You're great, you're brilliant, and handsome, too, can I have your baby?" — but the ones that let me know that once in a while I've succeeded in passing on a little of the joy that I got from reading, and that maybe, just possibly, I've earned a place in the pantheon. Just a small place will do. I don't mind sitting at the children's table, if I'm in the same room with the giants.

That's where it all starts, for me. Riding my Schwinn up to Llewellyn Library with my dog-eared "J" library card in my pocket (the "J" being for Juvenile, which meant there were entire wings of the library that were off-limits to me), running up the stairs to the second floor and making the two left turns that got me into the science fiction section, running my eyes and fingers over the shelves to see if there was anything new in and waiting to be checked out or if maybe I'd rather spend one of my three allowed weekly check-outs revisiting an old friend. Arthur C. Clarke, The Sands of Mars, Andre Norton, Storm Over Warlock, Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles, Robert Heinlein, Rocketship Gallileo, Citizen of the Galaxy, Farmer in the Sky (I read a lot of Heinlein), "Paul French," Lucky Starr and The Pirates of the Asteroids... I must have checked all those Lucky Starr books out ten times each, before I finally outgrew them.

How about you? What's the first book you remember reading that made you think, "Wow! I want to read more stuff like this!"

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Friday Challenge Update

Yeah, I know, it's Saturday evening. I received a deadline surprise Friday morning ("You need what redone and checked back into the source tree by 5pm today so that manufacturing can rebuild the distro first thing Monday morning?"), followed by a line of heavy T-storms and tornadoes that moved through the area late Friday afternoon and evening and took us offline for a few hours. Then this morning there were other, more pressing priorities...

So here we are, on a clear but remarkably windy Saturday evening, trying to get caught up on a few weeks' backlog of the Friday Challenge. As you might remember, the 6/20/08 Friday Challenge was to come up with a carnival-related story, either true or fiction, and we received the following entries.

Bane submitted "Buck to the Future," a really disturbing and vividly realized true story of a bar fight between redneck townies and carnies. It's hard to describe fights realistically and well; most writers seem to fall into either the splattering corpuscle war-porn or adolescent wish-fulfillment heroic fantasy traps, neither of which comes close to describing what's really happened in the actual fights I've been in or seen. Contrariwise, in this story, Bane nails it absolutely dead-on right. Read it and learn the power of understatement.

Sean submitted the unforgettable "Lost Chapter From Stranger in a Strange Land," which in a just universe would be reprinted far and wide, photocopied and passed around at sci-fi conventions, or at least passed around the Internet as samizdat. Love Heinlein or hate him, this story is a scream.

Henry submitted "The Carnival," a dark and heart-grabbing little story straight out of The Book of Rod Serling. It bogs down in the final third — the two key characters get way too talky, which dilutes the emotional punch — but I think that with one more rewrite focused on tightening up the ending, this one could sell to a good market. Stay tuned.

Rigel Kent also submitted one titled "The Carnival," this one being an engaging little piece of magical realism with style out the wazoo. The problem I had with this one wasn't anything in the story; it's that it feels like it's the start of a story, and there's much more waiting to be told. You've snapped the picture, now develop it. What happens next?

KTown submitted "The Princess and The Carnie." This one is a really strong, really well-written story, that kind of fizzles out in the last paragraphs, leaving some enormous questions unanswered. I get the feeling KTown was rushing to get to a point he could call "The End" in time to make the Friday Challenge deadline, and this story would really benefit from serious further development. There is a much longer story that follows from this beginning — maybe even a novel — and I'd like to see it.

Finally, at the last possible moment and then some, Snowdog submitted an untitled opening scene from a much longer work. I like the start, as it's got a really nice vintage Ray Bradbury feel to it — and that may be the problem. I can readily see this one coming back from some editor with the note, "Too 1940s-ish, old hat," scribbled on the title page. Which, by the way, is not actually a problem; the first signs of editorial life I ever saw were those exact words scribbled on the title page of the first story I ever tried seriously to sell. I think this one has potential, but there's not enough there yet to tell where it's going.

Jumping ahead to the 6/27/08 Friday Challenge, the objective was to come up with a 4th of July and/or fireworks related story, and while there was no requirement that the story begin with the words, "Hold my beer and watch this," remarkably, 75% of the entrants chose to use those words or something like them. The contestants are:

Kremben, who wrote this delightful little piece of madness. We've been reading it out loud and laughing; Karen insists she's actually been at that family dinner, while I do remember once watching a fellow lift a car by the bumper so that his friend could change the tire. In fairness, though, it was only a Fiat.

Passin Through submitted this charming little tale of high school, kids, and firecrackers. I especially liked this line: "Her best friend Pat, proceeded to light matches. She wanted to see how close she could get to the fuse without lighting it. She misjudged and lit the fuse." Yep. Seen that happen. It's usually preceded by, "Trust me, I know what I'm doing," and anteceded by, "Oh @#*&^#$!!!!"

Ben-El has finally broken down and gotten his own blog, where he has posted his entry, "Long I Stood There," a fully developed and very strong story. I don't know what I have to say about this one besides that it's very nicely done. It takes a lot to make me care about characters I wouldn't actually like in real life, but this one does, and it works. There are some micro-writing things I would suggest changing if I was editing this for publication, and I'm sure our resident southron dialect coaches could help him out on a few particulars, but those are all just trivial word-dinks and not worth detailing right now. In sum, very nicely done.

By the way, Ben-El also posted the story in two Haloscan chunks: part one and part two. If you have trouble reading the story on his site, you can read it in Haloscan instead. Personally, the white Arial font on black background bugs the Hell out of my eyes, but my eyes probably have a lot more mileage on 'em than yours.

And speaking of Hell, Henry takes us into the realm of the divine with "Watch This!". I don't know what else I can say about this one except that if you haven't read it, go do so right now. I just re-read it again and I'm still snickering.

Now, as for this week's Friday Challenge, I'm going to follow up the lead inadvertently suggested by rycamor in this post and declare that this week's topic is global warming. (Or global cooling, or global climate change, or peak oil, or whatever the heck the Great Eco-BugBear Of Doom is this week.) We're looking for your best rant about ecological catastrophe, and to make this one special we're playing for an authentic vintage VHS copy of Captain Planet and the Planeteers, Episode 1, "A Hero For Earth." (Or, if that doesn't get you excited, the usual selection of your choice from behind Door #2.)

Seriously, though, how could you possible not want this?
"Gaia, Spirit of the Earth, send magic rings to five teenagers around the globe, allowing each of them to control an element of nature: Earth, Fire, Wind, Water, and Heart. And when these first "Planeteers" combine their powers, they summon Earth's greatest champion — Captain Planet! [A muy metrosexual superhero with blue skin and a green mullet. ~brb] Their first mission is to stop the piggish polluter, Hoggish Greedly, and his super-robotic oil rig from destroying a wildlife sanctuary."

Captain Planet.... David Colburn
Gaia.............. Whoopi Goldberg
Gi................ Janice Kawaye
Kwame............. LeVar Burton
Linka............. Kath Soucie
Ma-Ti............. Scott Menville
Wheeler........... Jerry Dedio
Hoggish Greedly... Edward Asner
Rigger............ John Ratzenberger

Got that? Back in 1990 these sanctimonious little @#$*&6ts stopped Hoggish Greedly and his super-robotic oil rig from destroying a wildlife sanctuary. And that is why unleaded gasoline is now four bucks a gallon.

Oh, that's right, I suppose you all want to know who won the last two Friday Challenges, don't you? Well, given the number of really strong entries, in the end we decided to drop back, punt, and pick category winners. And they are...

In the category of horrorshow realism w/krovvy, Bane, for "Buck to the Future." In the category of serious fiction, week 1, KTown, for "The Princess and The Carnie." In the category of serious fiction, week 2, Ben-El for "Long I Stood There," and finally, in the category of humor, Henry, for "Watch This!"

Winners may claim their prizes by emailing me, as usual. However, we've just gotten in a pile of new books that haven't made their way onto Door #2 list yet, so if you want the best selection, kindly wait until Monday.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Global Warming Update

Sorry for posting this so late. I've had it in the queue for a while and wanted to tweak it just a bit more before posting it this morning, but then got interrupted and am just now getting back to it.

Before we go on, though: Giraffe, that was sick. Absolutely hilarious, according to my inner 12-year-old, but sick.

Returning to serious topics, then, you probably missed this BBC news item explaining why, because of global warming, the 2007 hurricane season was the most violent and deadly on rec—

Er, excuse me, I've just been handed this bulletin. Make that, the 2007 hurricane season was not the most violent on record, and in fact was remarkably tame. Writing in the journal Nature Geoscience:
The team from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (Noaa) Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) said its findings did not support the notion that human-induced climate change was causing an increase in the number of hurricanes and tropical storms.

"There have been some studies published that have suggested that this is the case, but this modelling study does not support that idea," observed lead author Tom Knutson.

"Rather, we actually simulate a reduction in hurricane frequency in the Atlantic."


In a concluding statement, the researchers said that although there was evidence both for and against the existence of a detectable anthropogenic signal in the tropical cyclone climate record, no firm conclusion could be made.

One reason for the uncertainty is the changes in observation methods used to record Atlantic hurricanes - a record that dates back to 1850.

From 1944, air reconnaissance flights were used to monitor tropical storms and hurricanes. This development allowed researchers to monitor a much greater area and not rely on ships' logs and storms reaching land.

And from the late 1960s, satellite technology has been used to monitor and track hurricanes.

Therefore, a reliable record of past hurricane activity only stretches back about 35 years.
Meanwhile, in other retroscience news, a team of researchers writing in the journal Nature have quietly erased the sharp dip in ocean surface temperatures that was previously believed to have occurred in the late 1940s, after having discovered that the reported change was in fact due to the different temperature measuring techniques employed by the U.S. and Royal navies. Commenting on this reversal, scientist Mike Hulme from the University of East Anglia, who was not involved in the study, said:
"I suspect there will be people who want to say it discredits the whole dataset, and that's not the appropriate response."
No, of course not. Totally inappropriate. Wouldn't dream of suggesting such a thing.

Meanwhile, from the Australian Herald Sun comes news that a team of doctors at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne, writing in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, have identified a dangerous and previously undiagnosed new form of mental illness, climate change delusion, in which patients suffer from bouts of chronic depression and visions of apocalyptic events. For more information about this troubling new disorder, click this link.

And remember: have a nice day.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Energy Crisis Update

If you look closely, there is a classic British sports car hidden somewhere in this picture.

Oh, there it is! And whadaya know, there's a Jeep Cherokee there, too.

As someone whose preferred summer driver is a Triumph Spitfire —

Is that a Minnesota thing? To own two vehicles: a nice car that you only drive from May through mid-October at the latest, and a POS that you drive from October through April?

Anyway, it was tough to pull the plug on the Jeep. The Beast and I have been through a lot together, although in hindsight a lot of those "adventures" were situations I wouldn't have gotten myself into in the first place if I hadn't been fairly confident the Jeep's 4WD low-range would get me out of them. The engine was still running strong, as is typical of that terrific state-of-the-1950s-art cast-iron Kenosha Straight-Six, and I was really hoping to roll the odometer over to 250,000 miles before I finally gave it a decent burial. It was getting close.

But the transmission was going, and the iron moths had chewed completely through the floor pans and gotten into the frame members, and so it was only a matter of time until I jumped into it one day and rode the driver's seat through the floorboards down to the pavement.

That actually happened to me once, in the legendary AquaBeetle, about which so much as been written. I jumped into it one day, and the driver's seat went right through the floorpan and ended up on the pavement. And then I pulled the seat back up out of the hole, and drove it home, and continued to drive the car for several more months afterwards.

But that's another story.

At first I thought I might be able simply to get rid of the Jeep and downsize the fleet, but circumstances made it clear that I needed to replace it with another crap hauler. I don't need a crap hauler often, and don't necessarily need to put a lot of mileage on it, but when I need a crap hauler, I need a crap hauler. And so the Quest began...

I started out intending to find another Jeep Cherokee, albeit with lower miles and less rust. For some strange reason they were suddenly hard to find, though, so I expanded my search parameters. I looked at pickups. I looked at smaller SUVs. I looked at Fords, GMs, Mazdas, Toyotas, Kias, Hyundais, Saturns — I first spotted this monstrosity on the local Saturn lot. Very clean; low miles for its age; at first I was mildly interested, and probably would have considered buying it at the asking price, if it'd had the diesel and the manual transmission. But the price they had it tagged at was much too high for one with a gasoline engine, an automatic transmission, and power everything. And of course, Saturn never budges on price, and so the Quest continued.

But as I slogged on, I noticed a strange thing. A few weeks later circumstances brought me back to the same Saturn dealer, where that Suburban was still sitting exactly where I'd last seen it, and when I looked again, I noticed the price had dropped! But Saturn never wheels and deals on price, or so they say, and when I checked their web site, it was still listed at the original asking price. Hmm. So I decided to check on it again a week later, and sure enough, the price had dropped yet again.

Ahah! This was something I understood; a chase, a hunt, a reverse-auction! On their web site, the Suburban remained priced at what it was when they'd first listed it. But on the lot, thanks to $4/gallon gasoline, the price posted on Truckzilla itself continued to drop week by week, plummeting, diving, plunging towards crush depth...

Two weeks ago it hit my strike price, and I bought it, for less than one-third the price they'd originally listed it for — which by the way, was still the price on their web site. Thus I am now the slightly chagrined owner of one of those terrible, evil, massively oversized, gas-guzzling dinosaur SUVs that's destroying Our Mother, The Earth.

I don't expect to drive it often, or put a lot of miles on it. (Although I will confess, as this July turns into another global-warming scorcher, that central air-conditioning sure is nice. What do these things come equipped with, anyway? Carrier? Trane?) And as someone whose preferred summer driver is a vintage Triumph, I also must confess that operating this thing does not feel like driving a car so much as piloting a cabin cruiser. Every time I approach an overpass, I feel this profound desire to slow down, honk three times, and wait for them to raise the drawbridge.

Still, if you're in the market for a crap hauler, they don't come much bigger or better than this. The next size up is yellow and has the name of a school district painted on the side.

After taking the new monstrosity on a shakedown cruise, we took a few days to clean out the Jeep, and then donated it to Goodwill — where ironically enough, there were two other Cherokees already on the lot. The car donation guy assured me it would find a good home. "Oh yeah, the off-roaders just snap these things up as fast as we get 'em on the lot. As long as the engine runs, they'll rebuild everything else." This was followed by a few anxious days in which it seemed to me that everywhere I looked there was a Jeep Cherokee for sale, staring at me, accusing me, mocking me.

But the Suburban has settled into its place in the driveway now, and reached its accommodations with all the other cars, and so just one more question remains: what do we name this thing? All of our cars have pet names.

The current leading contender for this one is Spaceball One.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Dialect Humor

Henry asks:
Why is the southern accent the only one you ever see anyone try to write? The first written southern accent I ran across was for the character Duke in the novel M*A*S*H (a character who was in the movie but not the TV show) and it confused the heck out of my 13 year old self. Duke kept using "y'all" when referring to one person, for example. Meanwhile, Hawkeye never spoke with an accent, despite being from Maine. Just a pet peeve of mine...
The problem with the Maine accent is that it's almost impossible to transcribe short of using IPA. Wiley Miller tries it, from time to time, but it undercuts the humor every time he does so. First you have to translate; then you have to try to get the joke; and by the time you've gotten that far, the whole thing's usually gone pretty stale.

As for other regional accents: watch Drop Dead Gorgeous sometime, which for my money is one of the funniest comedies ever made. There is a distinctive Minnesota accent that the makers of this film nailed absolutely dead to rights, and the proof is that most native Minnesotans, when shown this film, respond by saying, "That's not funny. We don't really talk like that."

And they will say it in the accent from the movie!

(By the way, when #3 Daughter is in the right mood she can start riffing in Minnesotan and it's just a hoot, doncha know.)

There are a number of problems with doing dialect humor. The first, come to think of it, is one I've caved-in to by reflex; we're talking about dialect, not humor, but the use of intrusive dialect almost automatically identifies the writing as humor. For that you can blame Mark Twain and Bret Harte, among others.

A second is that unlike the U.K., where regional dialects seem to have been fixed by royal proclamation sometime around 1066 A.D., American regional dialects come and go, sometimes quite rapidly. Washington Irving wrote a lot of humor in a Dutch-based New York dialect that's nearly incomprehensible today. The Brooklyn accent had its hey-day in the middle of the last century and by the 1960s was as stale as jokes about da Dodgers, dose bums, as youse guys well know. (By the way, one of my pet peeves was the TV show Happy Days, and moreso its spinoff, Laverne & Shirley, in which they didn't even try to get the Milwaukee accent right, but instead opted for a sort of sloppy New Joisey/Brooklyn dialect.) Valley Girl came and went so fast we barely had time to like, notice, totally, for sure. And of course, there is absolutely nothing older than slightly out-of-date urban black slang. South Park once did a great bit in which Chef (Isaac Hayes) explains to Mr. Garrison that the entire point of urban black slang is to change it faster than white people can keep up. Solid. Right on, brother.

There is also the matter of evolving sensitivity, or perhaps simply fear. I defy anyone to watch or listen to one of those old "Jack Benny and Rochester" sketches now without wincing. God Forbid anyone but Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld, or Adam Sandler should ever use the New York Jewish accent, oi vey! Jamaican can only be used in special cases, mon, and ever since Star Trek, ye cannah use the Scots accent f'r ennything but parody, captain. Comic Hispanic came and went around 1960 with Ricky Ricardo and Bill "Jose Jiminez" Dana, and came and went again around 1970 with Cheech & Chong, but these days only Cheech Marin and George Lopez dare to use it in public without fear of getting their lips sliced off, and Marin rarely does anymore.

Which leaves us with our old standby, the Comic Southern accent. (Duke in M*A*S*H was a comic relief character, after all.) It remains because it's easy to write, easy to understand, instantly conveys a whole passel of collateral information about them folks what speak that there dialect, and not the least, because southern white Christians are about the only people left who it's still safe to mock. Not that there actually is one universal southern accent, of course: Georgians speak differently from Tennesseeans, who speak differently from Kentuckians, who speak differently from Texans, who have at least four distinct regional sub-accents that I've identified so far. And of course, Louisianians speak vastly differently from all of the above.

But thanks to 150 years of East Coast publishers printing "regional" humor, 80 years of talkies enshrining the long tall Texan and his rustic comic sidekick, and 50 years of The Beverly Hillbillies, we're left with this sort of generic southern/western cowboy/hick drawl, and a handful of easily written, easily read print artifacts that immediately identify the speaker as a backwoods rube. In fact, back in the 1970s I had the misfortune to read a contemporary translation of Lysistrata in which the translator gave all the Spartans southern accents, to convey the Athenian point of view that the Spartans were all hot-headed, poorly educated, country bumpkins.

Is it fair? No. But what are you going to do about it?

Y'all come on back with yore comments now, ya hear?