Saturday, September 30, 2006

Beer-Money SF Redux

Velcro City Tourist Board linked to my recent post "'Beer Money' SF vs. 'Literary' SF," which reminded me that I'd had a related thought that I haven't managed to nail down yet.

It came about after I tried to talk up David Weber's upcoming book, Off Armageddon Reef, at my weekly editorial meeting.

Digression: I'll have to tell you a bit about Off Armageddon Reef for this to make sense. Reef is a big adventure novel, first in which might be a long series, about the last planet of humanity, planted secretly ahead of a genocidal onslaught by implacable aliens and kept low-tech for emissions secrecy for several centuries. The main story starts at that point, when an android wakes up and learns that she has to modernize the entire planet (fighting against the carefully-constructed society and religion the founders set up long ago), and, I expect, eventually lead them in kicking alien butt. But Reef is set entirely on the low-tech planet, and is about a small nation standing up to an alliance of larger, nastier nations. The tech level is roughly 18th century, and there some sea battling obviously influenced by Patrick O'Brian.

OK. Given that this book is a) a big adventure novel by b) a regularly-bestselling writer and c) is being published by this writer's new publisher, who is excited about it and going to push it hard, I thought it had a chance with some of the general-interest bookclubs in my company. Plus, I thought the low-tech thing would be a plus -- it felt more like a historical novel, without a lot of techy jargon and the kind of geekery that sends even stereo-manual enthusiasts like Dave Itzkoff screaming in terror.

I don't talk up most of the books I'm buying for SFBC at the editorial meeting (and the other editors silently thank me for it, as they similarly don't spend time talking about their similarly esoteric books that I won't want), but I took a few minutes to try to drum up interest in this one. And I failed, miserably.

Maybe I went about it wrong, but nobody was interested. The big problem seemed to be that the background was just too confusing -- one editor said something like "I don't get it -- it's in the future on another planet and they're fighting in wooden ships?" So my massive sales skills were for naught; nobody joined me. (Though I will laugh at them if it becomes a bestseller, as I suspect it will.)

That's when I started thinking about how we (we being editors, agents, authors, librarians, readers -- anybody, really, who thinks about books seriously and has to describe them to others) talk about books, and what things are easier to describe to a non-specialized audience.

Mysteries have their jargon, with "locked room" and "procedurals" and all the rest. And I know romance fans have their own shorthand as well, though I think that's a much more recent development, and has been helped along by web-based communities. I'm sure every genre or type of book has some inside terms that are opaque to outsiders. But it seems to be that SF stories and settings, at least a large subset of them, are uniquely difficult to explain to people who haven't yet been indoctrinated.

There are certainly kinds of SF that are easy to describe to people who aren't already SF aficionados -- Asimov's robot short stories, for example, or any alien-invasion story. But lots of SF is quite hard to explain to people who don't already know the jargon -- especially the kind of books we think of as near-future, the ones set twenty or forty years on. I'd say most serious SF these days is inherently difficult to explain to mundanes; SF builds on its history, and references its history, in ways that distances it from readers. To explain a new book to an insider is often a case of tracing references and pointing out the particular changes being rung on old themes, but all of that genre backstory would have to be explicated for an outsider, piece by piece.

By contrast, Fantasy, especially the kind of fantasy that's really hot now, is not distanced at all. The big fantasy explosion of the last decade has been in contemporary books, ones easily described as "what if"s. What if werewolves were real? What if vampires were tired of being second-class citizens? What if every kind of folkloric creature you've ever heard of liked to have lots and lots of sex? For better or worse, your aunt Gertrude in Schenectady can understand the set-ups of these books instantly, just as well as anyone else can -- and, for whatever zeitgeist-y reason, lots of Aunt Gertrudes have recently decided they do want to read about werewolves and vampires and fairies (oh my!). There's been some sour grapes, and some frankly envious looks, on the SF side of the fence, but it doesn't seem to me that SF could have the same kind of explosion -- not any kind of SF that would be identifiable as such to those of us already reading it.

My general theory here is that most readers are primarily interested in books that are described in words they already understand. There will be exceptions, but, for most people, being told that a book is about something incomprehensible (in a more convoluted way than that) will not be a point in its favor. If someone tells me that some great novel is about the inevitability of frammis, and that it distims the doshes in a way no gostak can, I'm probably not going to be interested. If the same person tells me it's a great new First Contact book with a neat new idea about picotech and a different take on "The Cold Equations," then I'll probably look for that book. You have to have some handle on why you might like a book before you can even decide you want it.

So, even a book that I thought of as "beer money" SF -- that is, one that is quite accessible and which I expect to be a major bestseller in the field -- can still be off-putting and distanced from the general mass of readers. Sure, they could figure it out, and the explanation wouldn't be all that long, but I can see having to bring up the Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox and SETI to make this "low-tech planet hundreds of years in the future" idea look plausible to logical thinkers who don't read SF. (Though I do wonder if that old mainstay of '70s SF, the lost colony, isn't an easier and quicker end-run to nearly the same place.)
Sidebar: I still like the phrase "beer-money" SF for this kind of story, since it has some resonance with SF history, and encapsulates the general unpretentiousness of this end of the field. (Not all literary SF is pretentious, but all pretentious SF is literary.) There is, of course, a tension when I use this term, since the old-fashioned beer-money writers -- people like Poul Anderson, who I believe originated the term -- didn't start their stories the way I described in the original post. But the world has changed; the new core SF stories assume their readers have already read Anderson and Clement, Asimov and Clarke in a way that those writers didn't and couldn't assume that their readers would have read as many particular works and ideas.

I guess I'm also saying that I don't entirely like the term "entry-level" SF, since that assumes new readers will start with those works and then move on to "real" SF. It seems to me that there is a core readership for the more demanding, allusive, historically-grounded SF, and that some new readers do join that group. But there is also a larger penumbra of readers who don't generally read those core current works (though they may have read and enjoyed some SF classics), but who do read less-demanding SF. They may even think of themselves as primarily SF readers, and the bulk of their pleasure reading may indeed be this kind of SF.

To put it in geeky SF terms for us core SF readers, literary SF's delta-vee is quite large, after about eighty years of post-Gernsback propulsion at several gravities. It is still possible for ships to leave Earth and rendezvous with us, but it gets slightly more difficult every year, as our distance from the starting point increases and our velocity continues to rise. And even the trailing beer-money flotilla, running at a slower 1G acceleration and keeping in more regular tight-beam contact with the inner system, is passing the orbit of Jupiter and becoming increasingly strange to those left behind.
One of two things could make SF's language more accessible to readers: either SF (or some subset of it) limits itself to very clearly understandable extrapolations (which wouldn't necessarily mean really near-future; I suspect very unscientific Galactic Empire adventure stories would be the best bet), or the language of SF extrapolation becomes massively more widespread and central in our culture. Since I don't see either of those things happening any time soon, I guess we're stuck over in here in our ghetto. But we're used to it; we've been here since the days of Gernsback, and, to be honest, we've really done wonders with the place. I doubt ol' Hugo would even recognize it...

Friday, September 29, 2006

Book-A-Day #74 (9/29): Killing Yourself To Live by Chuck Klosterman

Klosterman wandered across the USA for about three weeks in the summer of 2003, trying to see as many places that rock stars died as possible and then making some sense out of it all. The resulting book isn't about rock music directly all that often, but it's about caring about music, and relating everything in your life to music, all the time. If you have no interest in popular music, this is not the book for you. (But I'm very far from plugged into the current scene, either hip or popular, so you don't need to be a music geek to love Killing Yourself To Live.)

Klosterman is the kind of guy who can -- and does -- equate all of his girlfriends and crushes to the members of KISS that he thinks they are the equivalent of, and he's also the kind of guy who has an encyclopedic knowledge of KISS, only in part because they're his favorite band. So this book is sort of a non-fictional road trip version of High Fidelity -- which is to say, it's also about a music obsessive, but otherwise the shape of the book is very different.

Killing Yourself To Live ends up mostly being about Klosterman's love life, but he digresses a lot, and he's the kind of writer whose digressions are endlessly entertaining. (Reading it, I thought of at least five wildly divergent things to say about it here, but I've now forgotten them all.) I enjoyed this book a lot -- I dragged it around the house the last two evenings to keep reading it, which I hardly ever do -- and I'm going to try to find Klosterman's other three books. And, for an editor, there's no higher recommendation than "I plan to spend more of my own money on this guy's books."

Book-A-Day #73 (9/28): It's a Bird... by Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen

If I wanted to be rude, I'd call this an exceptionally pretentious Superman comic book. It's a hardcover graphic novel, 124 pages, about a writer named Steve (pause to note the name of the writer of this book, Steven T. Seagle), who has been offered the job of writing a Superman comic and obsesses about it, and his life, for a week or so. (Please also note that Steven T. Seagle wrote Superman for issues #190-200, according to Wikipedia.)

It's not bad, but it is at least somewhat pretentious. It's not actually a Superman story, though it does have some interpolated Superman vignettes, but I never got a sense of Seagle's conception of the character -- of course, he does spend the entire book insisting that he doesn't have any ideas for Superman, so I should have expected that.

If you really really like long-underwear comics but are looking for a half-step into the world of funnybooks with a bit more depth and real life to them, It's a Bird... might be right up your alley. If you're already reading comics about real people doing real things, and you're not obsessed with whether Superman can beat up the entire JLA by himself, give this a miss.

Quote of the Week

"When there are two conflicting versions of a story, the wise course is to believe the one in which people appear at their worst."
- H. Allen Smith

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Incoming Books

I have a small stack of books sitting on my printer, waiting for me to mention them here -- they've been there most of this week, but I still have a few books at the office that need to come home (though I don't remember, right now, what they are), and I wanted to wait and list them all at once.

Well, screw that. This is one of my pointless, organizing-my-reading-life posts to begin with, so I'll do it however I feel like at the moment.

I've got six books here:
  • Mark Haddon's second adult novel, A Spot of Bother, which has gotten mixed reviews so I suspect it might sit for quite a long time
  • Shriek: An Afterword by the incomparable Jeff VanderMeer, because I suddenly realized that I haven't read any of the books of my fellow WFA Judge, which just isn't right
  • A Futile and Stupid Gesture, a biography of National Lampoon founder Doug Kenney, which will sit next to my copy of Mr. Mike in the vain hope that someday I'll have time -- though I'd really love to read both of them
  • and three other things, including a Diana Wynne Jones novella, a book on poetry by Stephen Fry, and an odd book called A Field Guide to Roadside Technology
I also went to the comics shop today, so I can obsessively list what I got there:
  • four comics and a small trade paperback (a Spider-Man collection) for my older son, Thing 1
  • the long-delayed fourth Grant Morrison-Richard Case Doom Patrol collection, Musclebound
  • a reissued Richard Sala book I didn't have, The Chuckling Whatsit
  • Powers Vol. 3, which seems to have finally come back into print -- if it took a few month longer, I probably would have forgotten about the series, but it now looks like I might keep going -- and there's eight or so more collections!
  • and, as a very pleasant surprise (since I didn't think it would be out until November), The Complete Peanuts, 1961-1962. Schulz is God.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Book-A-Day #72 (9/27): Brass Man by Neal Asher

Another big space adventure from Asher, whose books I find strangely compelling.

Why strangely? Hm, that's hard to say... Asher writes serviceable prose, and writes about a lot of big explosions, and my tastes usually go the other way in both areas. (In fact, I read bits of a big fat SF book with lots of fighting last week, and didn't finish it.) But I find I look forward to an Asher novel (I read Prador Moon just a couple of months ago), and I read that book all the way through (even when I think I really should be moving on to something else for work), and it's always been quite enjoyable.

I think he tickles the same part of my brain as Steven Erikson does, but in a SFnal way. So, if there's anyone out there who likes Erikson, Asher might just be a SF equivalent.

Brass Man is a sequel to Gridlinked (which I did read) and The Line of Polity (I assume, because I didn't read it), and, because of that, the beginning is a bit confusing. Asher sets up a lot of parallel plotlines, and backfills the stories of the previous two novels, and he's not quite as good at doing either of those things as would be preferable. (Though he gets the job done, and he seems to be getting better book-by-book.) In a way, an Asher novel (at least the long ones) is like some large and fantastically complicated piece of earthmoving machinery: it takes a while to get going, and it snorts smoke and fire as it gathers momentum, but once you get through all of the gear changes it just keeps picking up speed and is unstoppable until it slams into the last page.

This isn't publishing in the States until January, and I always say I don't do reviews in the first place, so I'll leave my plot description to a bare minimum: the guy who I think was the villain of Line of Polity has survived, and heads off to do nefarious acts, which may include destroying all of human civilization. Ian Cormac, our series hero, is trying to stop him. They collide on a low-tech backwater planet, where the enigmatic alien AI Dragon (or one piece of it) is hiding out for its own purposes. Other people circle around them, including some locals and a number of interesting AIs. Oh, and the psychotic android Mr. Crane (the "Brass Man" of the title, who was the big baddie in Gridlinked) has been recreated, though his story doesn't go the way readers of Gridlinked would expect.

There's Hope for the Young 'Uns Yet

Little boy, standing in water: I CHALLENGE YOU, POSEIDON!

--Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

via Overheard at the Beach, Sep 26, 2006

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Book-A-Day #71 (9/26): The Pedant's Revolt by Andrea Barham

Yet another book of odd facts that I've been reading in the bathroom; this one is part of the thriving subgenre "things everyone knows that aren't so." (Which is a perennial -- I think I still have a book called The Dictionary of Misinformation, which my parents bought in about 1978.) This one is a bit short, and has all of the obvious entries, but is factually correct, as far as I can tell, and written in a pleasant style. If you know someone who is in perpetual need of a Snopes-check, this book could be a worthwhile gift.

And here I heave another of my occasional large sighs; before I had small children and lost so many brain cells, I used to read poetry anthologies in the loo. (Well, maybe I shouldn't blame the kids -- as I recall, I gave up in the middle of the turgid, boring New Oxford Book of English Verse and haven't had the strength to try again with another book of poetry, for fear of hitting more lousy 17th century poets or their ilk.)

Lies, Damned Lies, and Publishing

The bulk of this post is a comment I made over at Jeremy Lassen's LiveJournal, in response to a reference to this article in the Book Standard. I've also seen this statistic -- that only 7% of "books" sell more than 1000 copies -- being repeated as gospel on other blogs this morning. I am constitutionally incapable of taking numbers at face value, which led to the following:

I suspect some serious disingenuousness behind that statistic. Let's take a closer look at it...

The exact quote is "93 percent of ISBNs sold fewer than 1,000 units in 2004, according to Nielsen BookScan." Now, he didn't say the universe was of books published in 2004, but of ISBNs, which includes every book in print, and plenty of books that are now out of print (ISBNs have been standard worldwide since 1970).

So what he's actually saying is that, in this one given year, only 7% of all of the books published since 1970 moved more than 1000 units. This is not particularly controversial.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Book-A-Day #70 (9/25): The Discworld Almanak by Terry Pratchett and Bernard Pearson

Last night, I realized this had been sitting, more than half-read, on my nightstand for about a year. So I finished it off to put it out of its misery.

This is the Discworld Desk Diary for 2005, though, for this year, the actual calendar was shoved onto a few pages in the back and the rest is full of pseudo Old-Farmer's-Almanac stuff from Discworld. Since I'm not all that rural myself, I didn't find it as entertaining as previous years, but there is some funny stuff in here, even for me.

And, after the massive catching-up over the weekend, I'm now going to try to keep book-a-day entries on the same day -- or, at worst, the next day. But I've made promises like that before...

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Book-A-Day #69 (9/24): The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones

This is not entirely self-indulgence; a new edition of the Tough Guide is being published by Firebird any second now, and -- since the back cover of this here ARC says that the book has been updated -- I needed to read the whole book through and see if the new material (if I could tell what it was) worked with the older stuff.

Really. That was my reason. Honest.

I hope to write more about this book elsewhere at a later date, so I'll just say: you need a copy of this book.

There are only two kinds of SFF readers in the world: those who already own a copy of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, and those who need one. (And if you have the old DAW paperback, you'll probably want to upgrade to the new edition, which is much spiffier and actually looks exactly like a real tour guide -- something that seems to have escaped the designers at both DAW and Vista the first time around.)

It's Diana Wynne Jones's world; we're just Touring it.

Book-A-Day #68 (9/23): Hellboy, Volume 7: Strange Places by Mike Mignola

More comics, and yet another late book in a long-running series. As I said before, this is not the place to start.

But Mignola is doing great horror-fantasy comics, mixing Lovecraftiness and folklore almost equally, and I don't think the prose fantasy world notices very often. We should, though: this is really good stuff, and, in this book, something important happens to Hellboy (which happens rarely enough in a late volume of a prose series, goodness knows), that shows that Mignola is really going somewhere -- this isn't just a bunch of stories about a weird character, it's something more coherent and unified than that. What, exactly, the story will end up being is still to be seen, but I'm glad I'm reading it.

Book-A-Day #67 (9/22): Very Good, Jeeves! by P.G. Wodehouse

The third collection of Bertie-and-Jeeves stories, originally published as a book in 1930 and read by me (this time) in the wonderful and handsome Collector's Wodehouse edition from Overlook Press. Wodehouse's books are a joy to read, and this series makes them even better.

This book features Bobbie Wickham (urging Bertie to pop a water bottle in someone else's bed in the middle of the night), Aunt Agatha (making Bertie dog-sit), Tuppy Glossop (and his dalliance with a rugged outdoorswoman), and much more. It is as funny as books can get without inflicting serious injury. I'll end by quoting Evelyn Waugh:
Wodehouse's world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome that our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.

Book-A-Day #66 (9/21): Fables, Vol. 7: Arabian Nights (and Days) by Bill Willingham and various artists

It's a brilliant series, but I don't know what I have new to say about it at this point. If you like fantasy, and can stand comics, you should be reading this -- but start at volume 1.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Only Itzkoff Could Go To Dune

Dave Itzkoff's latest "Across the Universe" column (apparently not up on the Times site yet, since it's dated tomorrow -- link to be added when it is) is a factually and critically reasonable but bland look at Frank Herbert's Dune-o-verse, on the occasion of the publication of Herbert Jr. & Anderson's Hunters of Dune.

If it hadn't already put me to sleep, I might have ranted about taking an entire page to say something (gosh, the later Dune books aren't as good as the original, are they?) that SF readers already know and more general NY Times Book Review readers won't care about is stupid and wasteful. But, sadly, I am already asleep.

I am now forced to admit that I preferred Itzkoff in his earlier, full-on causing-trouble mode than in his current, NYTBR-standard Pompous Old Fart Explaining Everything style. Dave, if you're reading this, use your next column to claim that Charlie Stross's popularity proves that we're all morons. Or that all of the Hugo nominees this year were singularly horrible books. Or something. Come on, mix it up a little. I'm dying here.

Edit, Sunday 24 September at 20:20 EDT: The link, in all of its glory, is now there.

Book-A-Day #65 (9/20): Adverbs by Daniel Handler

The cover of this book says "A Novel," but it lies -- this is a collection of loosely-linked short stories, featuring some common characters (and maybe some characters who aren't the same, just have the same names) and a few events that are referenced in more than one story.

It says that it's all about "love" and it is -- but the focus is even tighter than that: it's about romantic love among young, unencumbered people. I'd thought about the absence of other kinds of love (parental, filial, friendly, of country or some other greater ideal) while reading it, but I didn't think about how all of the people in this book seem like young hipsters until I started typing this right now. A few of them are in other relationships when love hits, but none of them have children, none of them are tied to jobs or family, and I think only one couple is married. They're all just in a void, waiting for love, I guess.

It's a hard book to talk about -- you'd either need to run through it story-by-story and drag out all the little details, or try to make over-arching statements (which is what I did last paragraph, and that was about all I had to say about it on that level).

The writing is excellent, and the characters are interesting -- it's a book worth reading -- but it's not as interesting as his two real novels, The Basic Eight and Watch Your Mouth. The Basic Eight, in particular, is one of the great debut novels of our time, and Handler hasn't been able to hit that level again.

Book-A-Day #64 (9/19): Our National Parks by Ansel Adams

I found this on the "free books" shelves at work a few months ago, so I figured I'd continue my very haphazard art education.

This is a medium-sized paperback, with a lot of pretty black and white photography of plants and birds and rocks and things, and a selection of random snippets from Adams's writings (mostly letters), in which he begs everyone who will listen to leave as much of everything wild as human possible (and then some more).

Black and white photos of nature don't really do much for me, so I wasn't overly impressed -- sure, it's all very good photography, but I guess I prefer my nature in person. (I'm also not as big on the really wild stuff -- I like small woods and rivers near where people live, lands somewhat tamed but not completely controlled.)

So I'm a Philistine -- I can live with that.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Quote of the Week

"Being named as one of the world's best-dressed men doesn't necessarily mean that I am a bad person."
- Anthony R. Cucci, mayor of Jersey City

Just for the Record: Movable Type Still Sucks

The most annoying thing about the SFBC Blog is that there's no way to edit the HTML directly (while posting, or afterward). So when it starts formatting things bizarrely, I end up copying it into a Word file, saving it as text to zap all of the bad code (and the good code, too) and re-formatting from scratch.

I'm getting happier and happier with Blogger the more I use Movable Type. MT wasn't created by Microsoft, was it? It has that feel to it...

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Reading Into the Past: Week of 9/17

I bet you thought I'd forgotten, right? (And I had.)

But I'm back, and let's see what I was reading this week in 1996:
  • Karen Kijewski, Honky Tonk Kat (9/10)
    I really enjoyed this mystery series at the time (I was reading it through most of the '90s, as I recall), but I haven't touched or seen a Kijewski book in years. Although, as I try to remember the details, I keep getting it confused with the Linda Barnes series about a female PI/cab driver in Boston. The Kijewski books are set somewhere out West (Colorado?), and also have a female lead. One quick trip to Amazon later: Kat Colorado is the series heroine, but I can't tell where these take place. The last one was Stray Kat Waltz in 1998 (two books after this one). If you like Barnes or Marcia Muller, digging out Kijewski's books would probably be worth your time; she wasn't super-colossal, but she wrote good mysteries. (And then disappeared, I guess.)
  • Donald E. Westlake, Sacred Monster (9/11)
    One of Westlake's less-funny books -- though it does have some laughs, as all of his books do (though some have very dark laughs) -- is a Hollywood cautionary tale, proving that he can write absolutely anything.
  • Marcia Muller, The Broken Promise Land (9/12)
    A middle Sharon McCone book. This series got encrusted with stuff -- too many characters, too many subplots, too much emotional baggage -- a few books later, and I think I've now basically stopped reading it. But the first fifteen or so of them are quite good.
  • Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Return to the Same City (9/13)
    Taibo was a Mexican writer, as I recall, and this was a PI story set in...let's say Mexico City, and that's probably right. I don't have much of a memory of it.
  • C.L. Moore, Jirel of Joiry (9/14)
    The original sword-slinging heroine, who didn't actually impress me as much as I'd hoped. The prose gets Lovecraftianly purple at times, but it didn't work for me with Moore as it did with Lovecraft. Like many great originators, it's not very much at all like the things being published under similar labels today, and, for that reason alone, more people should seek it out.
  • Bill Amend, Wildly FoxTrot (9/14)
    A big collection of the strip cartoon.
  • Lawrence Block, Even the Wicked (9/14)
    One of the later Matt Scudder novels, which are all excellent mystery/thriller novels. I prefer the earlier ones -- they're mysteries rather than thrillers, and more is at stake for Scudder -- but the '90s books are great examples of their type. I think this was one of the lighter and puffier entries in the series.
  • Julie Smith, The Kindness of Strangers (9/16)
    One of her cop-in-New-Orleans novels. The first one of the series, New Orleans Mourning, won the Edgar Award and is just stunning. Each book after that was a little less impressive, and I finally gave up on the series. I think this one was fairly late. So my advice is to read New Orleans Mourning, if you haven't yet, and then maybe continue until you hit one you don't like.
This was clearly one of my periodic mystery binges; I haven't done them as much lately, since I haven't had as much uninterrupted reading time. (In the old days, I could knock off a mystery in a day without a problem.)

Beer-Money SF vs. Literary SF

Another one of my probably-stupid insights hit me over the weekend:

In a "literary" SF novel, the story begins at the beginning of the actual story, in the middle of whatever milieu the story is set in, and the author drops clues so that the reader can fill in the backstory. In fact, this kind of backfilling is one of the great pleasure of SF, to my mind.

In "beer-money" SF (which I could also call "entry level," or other things), a book begins with a prologue, generally divided into several short scenes, which collectively pull the reader forward (or outward, or whatever) from the reader's now into the world of the novel. This can be done well or badly, but the reader's hand must be held. (A good example of the completely unnecessary prologue is the one in C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner -- this is interesting, because usually she's on the other side of the divide.)

An example: if Paul McAuley's "Confluence" trilogy (a landmark of '90s SF, by the way; everyone should have read it by now) was written in "beer money" mode, it would have started with the following sequence of scenes:
  • humans discover FTL
  • humans form some sort of galactic polity (probably several scenes)
  • time passes, and humanity gets old and weird
  • someone decides to build a huge surfboard shaped planet
  • building of the surfboard-shaped planet, in several quick scenes
  • people move in
  • bureaucracy of the surfboard-shaped planet goes a bit decadent
And only then could the real story begin.

Of course, this is a recent development; books have only been allowed to be long enough for this kind of expanse in the last decade or two. Back in the "Golden Age" (and forward through the '80s), every SF story started like the literary mode does now. What I'm interested in is figuring out when it changed -- what was the first book with a prologue telling us things that we should have been able to figure out from the book itself?

M Is For the Meme I Use to Waste Time

A - Accent: According to me, I don't have an accent. Other people would probably say I have a vague American Northeast accent, without a strong regional flavor.
B - Breakfast item: During the week, a big cup of water. On the weekend, I try not to. But the New Jersey staple, the Taylor-ham-egg-and-cheese-on-a-roll, often trips me up.
C - Chore you hate: Mowing the lawn.
D - Dad's Name: Richard
E - Essential everyday item: Let's say the iPod, though my Palm is a close second.
F - Flavor ice cream: GooGoo Cluster, though I haven't had it in a while. In general, any flavor with one too many things stuck in it.
G - Gold or Silver?: White gold. It's not shiny and show-offy like silver or yellow gold.
H - Hometown: Don't really have one; I was born in Albany, NY, lived in and around Rochester, NY for my first decade, then Wayne, NJ, for the rest of my youth, and I now live in Pompton Lakes, NJ. In as much as I have a hometown, it's generalized New Jersey suburbia.
I - Insomnia: I used to have trouble falling asleep, years ago, because I would get wound up and I couldn't calm down, but that wasn't insomnia, per se. And it went away long ago.
J - Job Title: Senior Editor
K - Kids: Two: Thing 1 is 8 and Thing 2 is 5.
L - Living arrangements: Stately Hornswoggler Mansion is a two-story Cape Cod on a roughly 50x125 foot lot in the kind of town that has sidewalks but not fenced-in yards.
M - Mum's birthplace: Albany, NY, same as me.
N - Number of significant others you've had: The Wife. (Full stop.)
O - Overnight hospital stays: One night for my heart trouble back in 2002 (would have been more, but I checked myself out). Nothing else since birth that I can recall.
P - Phobia: Not as such.
Q - Queer: To mangle a quote from Daniel Handler's Adverbs, if sexuality is the United States and the East Coast is staunchly heterosexual and California to Washington state is exclusively gay men and lesbians, I'd be...about where I really am, in North Jersey close to New York. In this, as in so many other things, I'm quite boring.
R - Religious Affiliation: Brought up United Church of Christ, which is very vanilla Protestantism. Gave it all up as a bad idea around 1985.
S - Siblings: One younger brother, who is the demented mind behind the hasn't-been-updated-in-way-too-long webcomic Happy Freaking Ray of Goddamn Sunshine.
T - Time you wake up: This week (shudder) it's been 5:40. Usually it's 6:00 during the week, and 7-to-8ish on weekend, depending on how loud the boys are when they jump on my head.
U - Unnatural hair colours you've had: None
V - Vegetable you refuse to eat: Zucchini made me physically ill once, and I haven't touched it since. I'm not all that fond of most vegetables, but that one leads the pack.
W - Worst habit: With so many too chose from, how can I decide?
X - X-rays you've had: Just dental, though I've had a bunch of chest MRIs over the past few years.
Y - Yummy: Yummy yummy, I've got love in my tummy.
Z - Zodiac sign: Don't even go there, lest I snort in disdain.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Book-A-Day #63 (9/18): The Best of Bizarro by Dan Piraro

I found this at the bookstore for half price the last time I was there, so I couldn't resist.

It's from 1992, and I hadn't thought Bizarro (this is the newspaper comics panel) was old enough to have already had a "Best of" back then, but this claims to be the seventh Bizarro book, and those kind of books are usually annual, so we can all do the math.

I was reading this a few pages a night just before going to bed -- strip cartoon collections are great like that, since you can pick them up and put them down on any page (and reading them straight through is usually monotonous, anyway). And I finished it off on Monday because I was reading parts of a book for SFBC (which I won't mention, again, since I didn't finish it).

Piraro is pretty consistent; if you like his style of humor, you'll laugh at most of the cartoons here, just like you would with any of his collections. His humor isn't as bizarre as it's sometimes billed -- he does do a gag cartoon for the daily papers, after all, so it's accessible to a reasonably large audience -- but it's generally amusing, and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.

This book isn't arranged chronologically, which would have been nice -- it looks like Piraro's art style changed quite a bit over the years, and being able to follow that would be nice. (In fact, what I think are the earliest cartoons look very much like Bob Burden's early style -- light crosshatching, very deformed faces, uncomfortable body language -- and I'd love to know if the two of them had any connection.)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Movable Type Sucks Giant Donkey Balls

Huge ones. World-spanning ones. Aaargh!

This blog runs on Blogger, which is missing a few bells and whistles, but never, for example, loses the entirety of a post I wrote yesterday and saved to post today -- as Movable Type just did.

Blogger also warns the user if he's about to do something that might wipe out a post -- such as some random keystroke combination that goes forward or back -- which Movable Type, the bastards, have not yet discovered.

Movable Type is a pain in my tuchus, and I don't care who knows it.

A Word To The Wise Is Sufficient

If you're protesting that someone has defamed an aspect of your life by saying that aspect is evil and propagates through violence, perhaps declaring that the war will continue until all who oppose you have died horrible deaths -- and fomenting massive violent street demonstrations -- is not the best strategy to prove him wrong.

I'm just saying.

Edit, two hours later: I see La Gringa said almost exactly the same thing I just did, and said it about eight hours earlier. Thus proving we're both incredibly smart and perceptive.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Book-A-Day #62 (9/17): Path of the Assassin, Volume One: Serving in the Dark by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima

This is the third Koike-Kojima storyline to be translated into English and published by Dark Horse over here (there are a couple of related, shorter storylines with one or the other of them and other creators, too, but I haven't followed them yet). The first was Lone Wolf and Cub (in 28 volumes), which is generally considered to be their masterpiece -- and it is really good. Then came ten volumes of Samurai Executioner, which apparently they did just before starting Lone Wolf.

Now comes this, and I don't know how many volumes it will be before it's done. The original copyright date on this book is 1972, which would (I think) put it right in the middle of Lone Wolf -- perhaps the two series appeared concurrently, or maybe they alternated.

The story is historical fiction, about a young ninja (though that word is usually not used) serving the young lord who would one day become Tokugawa Ieyasu and unify Japan. It's set right in the middle of Japan's most insular period, among people who are hard to fathom for modern westerners. On top of that, this is the first Koike-Kojima story not to be flopped photographically for US publication; it has been translated, but the art and story still reads from right-to left. (And -- having read a lot of comics the other way over the past twenty or more years -- I'm finding that hard to get used to; it doesn't flow easily for my eyes.)

So I found this story very distanced, but I still enjoyed it. Kojima's art is very dynamic (even in a book like this, where half of the story takes place in the dark) and Koike is good with character.

I should mention that this has a big "Parental Advisory" sticker on it, like most of the Koike-Kojima books I've seen. The other ones (especially the later Lone Wolf volumes, where body parts fly about with abandon and gallons of blood are spilled) have this warning mostly for violence, but this is the first one where the warning is primarily for sex. The young lord's wedding night is quite graphically depicted, and there are several other sex scenes. None of it is gratuitous, but I'm sure it will offend someone. Sex always does.

More Lego Star Wars Geekery

There's a great short movie using Star Wars LEGO stuff called Triumph of the Empire. Imagine a minifigure Leni Riefenstahl, and you'll get the idea. It's quite an achievement.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

More Fun With Your New Vampire

One of the less-exciting things I was doing today was running through the "Forthcoming Books" listings in the September Locus to update my own lists of upcoming books. (I'd similarly dragged home a pile of publisher's catalogs on Thursday night, and had a couple of e-mailed futures lists from publishers to check against Locus this weekend.)

It was tedious, boring work: combing through long lists of titles and marking up the ones I cared about as either a) already on my list or b) needing to be added.

But, along the way, I came across two books (authors now forgotten) that sparked a quick giggle, and then a thought:
Real Vampires Have Curves
I'm the Vampire, That's Why

The thought was that there's plenty of room for more titles along those lines (infinite room, probably). Both of those were obviously paranormal romances, but vampires are like chocolate and diamonds: they go with anything and the more of them, the better.

I could think of a lot of titles myself, but I'd rather leave some room for others.

Yes, you guessed it: this is a blatant attempt to get more comments. Let me start you folks off with a couple of possibilities:
The Man Who Shouted Vampire at the Heart of the World
The Vampire Mystique

and let you think of more.

Book-A-Day #61 (9/16): Star Wars: Allegiance by Timothy Zahn

No plot details here, since Allegiance doesn't publish until February. This is a kind of book I've been wishing Lucasfilm would approve for a long time: it's set soon after the original Star Wars (before Empire Strikes Back), which is a time I've always thought was ripe for a lot of stories.

Star Wars novels have been going awfully military recently (and I don't really know why), and this one is no exception -- in addition to our usual Luke-and-Han-and-Leia plot, there's the story of a bunch of stormtroopers who are not entirely happy with their assigned duties.

Oh, also -- having someone say "I have a bad fee--" and then get cut off is just as overused, and trite, as having the full original quote. Just for the record.

Book-A-Day #60 (9/15): MirrorMask by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

This is the juvenile novella-ization of the movie, not the illustrated film script (also titled MirrorMask) or the big art book (which is The Alchemy of MirrorMask).

It's a bit slim, and feels very much like a novelization -- it skips from scene to scene of the movie without adding much backstory or expanding anything. It's not as successful as Gaiman's YA novella Coraline, and it's really mostly of interest (like so many novelizations) as a memento of the movie. (And the movie's not that great to begin with.)

Book-A-Day #59 (9/14): Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

There was a good review of this book in this weekend's New York Times Book Review, which I mostly agreed with, so I won't repeat what Terrence Rafferty said there.

I would be a bit more specific, though, by linking some separate items in Murakami's introduction: his first English-language story collection, The Elephant Vanishes, came out in 1992, and featured the best of his short stories to date. He also has only written a couple of stories in the decade since then (except for the separate linked collection after the quake, and, more importantly, the last five stories in this book, which were published as Strange Tales from Tokyo in Japan last year). So it's fairly clear that most of the stories in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman are the ones that were considered for The Elephant Vanishes, but weren't thought to be as good as those stories by Murakami, his translators, and/or his Knopf editors.

This explains why most of this book was subtly disappointing to me; it's hard to nail things down, story-by-story, without a detailed permissions list on the copyright page (which every short story collection should have, in my opinion), but I have the impression that most of these stories are actually earlier than the Elephant Vanishes stories. There's less of Murakami's more mature style, with fantastic elements thrown in casually and buried connections that the reader has to tease out, and a lot of Raymond Carver-y more-or-less mainstream stories.

Some of the earlier stories, though, are as good as any of Murakami's work -- notably the title story and "Firefly." (And some others almost work as well as they should, such as "A 'Poor Aunt' Story" and "The Seventh Man.")

More importantly, though, the five Strange Stories are great -- Murakami at top form. If Knopf had published them as a small book of their own (as they were in Japan, and much like after the quake here), it would have been one of the highlights of his career -- as good as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles or Kafka on the Shore. They may be embedded in a longer, more mixed book, but they're still essential Murakami.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Book-A-Day #58 (9/13): Non Sequitur's Sunday Color Treasury by Wiley Miller

A big collection of Sunday comics from the syndicated strip, with various introductions explaining why and how the cartoonist did various things. (There's a lot of technical stuff about color reproduction, fitting the space of a comics section, and the life-cycle of a strip, so this book is essential reading for anyone with any serious interest in strip cartoons.)

I like Wiley better as an unconnected gag-a-day cartoonist in the Far Side mode, and this book chronicles the slow turn of Non Sequitur from that to a loose anthology of ongoing features, so there's a bit of frustration on my part, as the stuff I like disappears and is replaced by recurring characters who are mostly annoying.

The little goth girl Danae is the best of the lot, but she's a one-note character, and her supporting cast is mediocre at best. The Maine accents, and the characters that sport them, are embarrassingly unfunny.

I think Wiley is also trying to be an "I hate everyone" curmudgeon, but he can't muster up the necessary bile for it. He cheerfully slanders the current administration in one series, which offends me more than the cartoonists (like Tom Tomorrow) who obviously loathe Bush because of their carefully thought-out and passionately held beliefs. Wiley seems to be just trying to be funny and "controversial" when he back-handedly accuses the entire administration of massive fraud, incompetence, and stupidity. It's not who he's attacking that bothers me (Cthulhu knows I have my own problems with that numbskull in the White House), but the way that he doesn't seem to care about the problem, or think it matters.

Anyway, that's a minor part of the strip, but it annoyed me deeply every time the not-Bush appeared. And I generally like isn't-Bush-an-idiot jokes. Eh. I'm sure Non Sequitur has its fans, and this book is for them (and aspiring strip cartoonists). But not really for the rest of us.

Book-A-Day #57 (9/12): Dark Labyrinth by Luis Royo

An art book by the popular Spanish artist -- this is a smaller format than most of his NBM titles, and has fewer pages, as well. It's really another one of the specialty books (like the Prohibited Book and Conceptions series), rather than a new major collection -- though it's actually bit larger, physically, than those other minor books. (Which, I guess, makes this the Royo Mama Bear; it's just right.)

A lot of the painted art is familiar, too -- I think much of it has already been in his bigger collections.

What you get here is some text, which I'm afraid manages to be both pretentious and mostly senseless, and lots of sketches. Actually, sketches might not be the right work -- they're monochrome and small (and mostly look like preliminary drawings), but they're very tight and finished-looking. He is an excellent artist, but he draws all his women with pretty much the same body, so seeing it naked yet again is not as thrilling as it might be.

As usual with Royo, there's a lot of nudity, and a lot of artistic skill devoted to gorgeous women semi-wearing various odd costumes. Reading this, I decided that all of Royo's people look like European porn stars.

Quote of the Week

There are two groups of people: those who divide people into two groups and those who don't.
- Robert Benchley

My Ongoing Conquest of the World Continues On Schedule

Poking through my SiteMeter statistics this morning -- when I should have been doing real work, of course -- I discovered that this blog is now the #1 result when googling "andrew wheeler blog." (And the still-nameless SFBC blog is #2.)

However, I'm still only #3 when you google "Hornswoggler" and about #13 for "Andrew Wheeler," so I still have a way to go.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Blogging May Become Sporadic...

...since I've just gotten something more fun to do, at least for a little while. The original Lego Star Wars was my favorite game of last year (not that I play games all that much, so it's not a ground-shaking distinction), and this one looks to be even more fun.

Opposites Attract

Last night The Wife was a bit flustered, trying to get her things together and get out the door for a Cub Scouts parents' meeting. She was anxious because she's the Popcorn Lady this year (as she puts it: Girl Scouts sell cookies, Cub Scouts sell popcorn), and she'd have to give a presentation to all of the parents to explain how the fund-raiser works and all that good stuff.

I remarked that I'm always much happier giving a presentation or speaking before a group than I am having to talk one-on-one with someone, especially if strangers are involved.

She stopped and looked at me funny, as if I'd just grown some odd extra limb, and said that she (and, by implication, the majority of the human race that is sane) felt exactly the opposite.

Then she went out and knocked 'em dead, as I knew she would.

The EgoBoo Meme

Because I can't see any other purpose to this mini-quiz:

Your SAT Score of 1460 Means:

You Scored Higher Than Howard Stern
You Scored Higher Than George W. Bush
You Scored Higher Than Al Gore
You Scored Higher Than David Duchovny
You Scored Higher Than Natalie Portman
You Scored Lower Than Bill Gates

Your IQ is most likely in the 140-150 range

Equivalent ACT score: 33

Schools that Fit Your SAT Score:
Deep Springs College
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Pomona College
Harvey Mudd College

I should point out that I took the SATs six years straight, so there's a certain element of "learning the test" in that score. And I'll also note that my high score was in the fifth year; the College Board did one of their periodic rejiggerings of the test the next year and my score fell slightly.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Movie Log: Cold Comfort Farm

It was another three-movie weekend (if we count Clone Wars), and this was #3 -- The Wife and I saw it Sunday night.

Once again, I picked a movie because I've read the book -- Cold Comfort Farm is based on the classic Stella Gibbons novel. It's very funny and very literary -- the novel is a parody of a lot of early 20th century English novels (D.H. Lawrence in particular), and the movie captures that beautifully.

In fact, I don't remember the novel being as funny as the movie was, which probably means I wasn't paying enough attention when I read the book eight years or so ago. (Another thing I should re-read in my copious spare time.)

If you need another reason to see it, Cold Comfort Farm also features the lovely and talented Kate Beckinsale in a part which doesn't make you feel sorry for her (unlike most of her more recent movies, which make me want to track down her agent and forcibly retire him). There's also a bunch of other people doing excellent work, from Ian McKellan as a fire & brimstone preacher to Stephen Fry as the very wet pseudo-Lawrence would-be writer.

If you read classic English novels, you need to read Cold Comfort Farm. And once you have, you should see the movie -- you could probably skip reading the book, I suppose, but that sounds like heresy to me.

It's Roald Dahl Day!

It seems that it's only officially Roald Dahl day today in the UK, but the rest of us can celebrate if we feel like it. The Dahl website has more details, and other stuff about Dahl and his works.

Today would have been his 90th birthday -- that is, if he weren't already dead. Similarly, it would be the 531st birthday of Cesare Borgia (and, I'm certain, that there's some fantasy novel lurking about where it really is).

Anyway, go do something Dahlesque. I'm going to see if my boys want me to start reading James and the Giant Peach to them tonight -- but I'm sure they won't. (They haven't yet, despite several attempts on my part.)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Movie Log: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Like all of the Harry Potter movies, this is a bit too long, too overstuffed, and rushes too quickly to hit the high points. It's the curse of working from books that have been memorized by a horde of obsessed fans, I suppose: there's a sense that these films are desperately trying to cram everything from the books in, and there's no way that could possibly work.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is, I think, the second-best movie in the series -- it's not as good as its immediate predecessor (...Prisoner of Azkaban), but works much better than the poky and obvious first two movies. The Wife and I finally saw it this Friday; I remembered that we had a copy of it, and we felt like seeing it.

It's a notably funny movie -- mostly because of the actors playing the Weasley twins (and The Wife thinks they should be given their own English chat show right now -- if they can be half that funny unscripted, it would be a blast), but the whole middle of the movie is mostly fun and light-hearted, without much in the way of schoolwork or death threats from undead Dark Lords to cloud the picture. The former never really does show up -- the movie had to jettison nearly all references to the fact that Harry is at a school just to hit a 150-minute running time -- but the latter does turn up, like the proverbial bad penny, by the end. (Ralph Fiennes is pretty good as the Noseless Wonder, though he does get some pretty big pieces of scenery stuck in his teeth.)

One thing I do enjoy about the books and movies is how Harry isn't actually all that good at very much -- by this point, we've learned that he survived not due to any intrinsic magical specialness of his own, but merely because his mother was willing to die to save him. He's a damn good Quiddich player and general broom-rider, but he doesn't seem to otherwise be much good at schoolwork, and he's a bit of a dim bulb (having to be nudged repeatedly to notice the obvious). Come to think of it, he's a quintessentially British hero (public-school division) -- brave to a fault, fiercely loyal to his friends, but not an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination.

I still think these books don't lend themselves well to the kind of movies the studio wants to make -- the movies should either be more streamlined and have their own distinct plots, or each book should be turned into a longer piece (two to three movies or a miniseries). But nobody asked me, and the fans seem to be enjoying the movies as they are. Goblet of Fire is long but not too long (I didn't look at my watch until nearly the two-hour mark), and it's splendidly entertaining. And practically everyone reading this saw it a good year ago.

Hey! Look at This!

The single longest and weirdest piece of comment spam I have ever seen. (I call it "spam" because it seems to have nothing to do with the post it is attached to, but there's obviously a human being behind it.)

Dr. Bronner? Is that you?

Monday, September 11, 2006

Book-A-Day #56 (9/11): Batman and the Monster Men by Matt Wagner

I abandoned the book I was reading for the SFBC this morning and dived into another one after the weekly SFBC Monday morning meeting, in which Ellen Asher and I (and whoever else is around that week) try to figure out what we're doing and what happens next.

So I didn't finish that one, and it doesn't count for book-a-day. The new one is long, so I won't finish it for a couple of days. So I got to grab something from the teetering pile of comics 'n stuff, and this was it.

It's yet another untold (or maybe retold is more like it) story from the early career of Batman. It's a pretty good Batman story, so, if you're in the market for a new Batman story, this could fit the bill. However, Wagner is capable of immensely better work than this, and I hope the comics market has bounced back enough that he can go back to doing his own stories, instead of rehashing '70s stories that rehashed '40s stories.

Feh. There was a time when seeing one of my favorite comics creators doing a big mainstream underwear book would have been fresh and exciting, but that was a good fifteen years ago. Now it's just annoying.

Things People Searched For and Found "Antick Musings"

I'm going to keep track of these for a while, and then post this sometime in the future. If you're reading this sentence, it is now the future. (Greetings!)

These are all straight from my SiteMeter statistics; each one of these lines represents a person who searched for these particular words and then clicked on an "Antick Musings" link. In some cases, mental derangement is the only logical possibility.

I've been keeping this up for more than a month now, so I think it's high time to unload these on you good people. Seek the hidden mysteries of synchronicity or point and laugh; it's all good to me.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Incoming Books: 10 September

The Wife decamped with her mother and the boys this morning to go apple-picking (oh, yes, we're very bucolic here in New Jersey), leaving me to mow the lawn and do some reading. After I did both of those things (finishing off the book discretely veiled in a previous entry), and started draining the pool, I decided I needed a reward, so I set off to do some book-shopping.

The major reason I went out was to get Haruki Murakami's new story collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, but of course I got other stuff as well -- seven other books, actually. Four of them are comics or about comics (the new Joe Sacco collection, Scott McCloud's Making Comics, a Bizarro strip collection, and the Chip-Kidd designed book on Plastic Man), but two of the other the other three are real, lots-of-words-on-a-page books. The last one is an odder item, and it might come up in the book-a-day rotation.

Oh, and I should mention that I finally got a copy of Howard Waldrop's Howard Who? in the cute little Small Beer/Peapod Classics edition. I almost bought it at Worldcon, but I couldn't find a dealer with all of the odd books in print I wanted, so I just ordered them from B&N to my office once I got back (free shipping! same-day delivery in Manhattan!). The other things were specifically for the SFBC, so they're still in the office.

Book-A-Day #55 (9/10): a short-story collection by a great American fantasist

I'm being coy about books that I read for the SFBC these days, at least some of the time. There's nothing secret about this book -- it was published several years ago -- but I think it's best to let the rights-holders be the first ones to know if I liked a book or not, rather than you folks. (I hope you don't mind.)

This one is pretty good, actually, though exceptionally miscellaneous (and quite short, too).

Book-A-Day #54 (9/9): Pinky & Stinky by James Kochalka

We went to the library today ("today" being Saturday, 9/9) -- well, actually, we went to two libraries, but I don't feel up to telling the story of the perambulations of the comedy team of Thing 1, Thing 2, and Minivan Dad, and you probably don't care, anyway -- and the boys got a small pile of media (1 DVD, 1 VHS, 2 magazines, 3 manga collections, 3 picture books, and a partridge in a pear tree).

I picked up this; it was in the "juvenile graphic novel" section (where Thing 1 was intently browsing, and I was kibitzing), I'd always mean to read something by Kochalka (I'm now regularly checking out his webcomic American Elf, and I've been hearing about him for ages), and so there I went.

I'd call this a kids' comic rather than all-ages; there's a flatness of emotional effect and of motivation that's more common in stories for children. The title characters are pigs sent on an exploratory mission to Pluto, but they crash-land on the Moon, are mistreated by the human US astronauts there, and end up aiding the Moon-Men against those astronauts. It was fun and pleasant, and maybe the boys will like it (it's going up to their rooms now), but I'm glad I didn't spend my own money on it. I might flip through a Kochalka book the next time I'm at my comics store, though.

Book-A-Day #53 (9/8): Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

This is the first novel (publishing in February) by the noted and award winning short-story writer who's been trying to keep quiet the fact that he's the son of a certain famous horror writer, so that his work can succeed on its own merits. (Given how wonderful his debut collection 20th Century Ghosts is, he certainly has a lot of merits of his own.)

My conflicts of interest include:
  • my parent company just bought the bookclub rights to this book, and it will be offered in the SFBC (in fact, I'll probably do a little "handsell" about it)
  • I am a World Fantasy Award Judge this year, and Hill is nominated three times -- for Novella, Short Fiction, and Collection
So, in the interests of not having Strange Horizons claim that I was granted the Secret Order of Mu for agreeing to puff up this novel, I think it's best that I not tell you how much I liked it. (Though it is a ripping yarn, and the best comparison I could make is exactly the one Joe Hill would prefer that I didn't.)

Anyway, you'll probably all be hearing a lot about this book come February, so I'll just say: nyah, nyah, I've read it already.

My Bestselling YA Novel

I discovered this random-name generator from Gwenda Bond, and of course had to try it out myself:

Andrew Wheeler is the author of
Drums, Heavy Metal, and the Slacker Kings

But G.B.H. Hornswoggler wrote
Girls, Germs, and the Slacker Kings

What is it with those Slacker Kings? I just can't get rid of them!

Movie Log: American Splendor

How appropriate is it that, in a movie with Paul Giamatti playing Harvey Pekar, and Harvey Pekar playing "Real Harvey" (giving asides on the action of the movie, and explaining various scenes) and someone else playing "Stage Harvey" (in the stage-play based on American Splendor shown in the movie) -- and with the drawings of at least four artists also showing various versions of Harvey Pekar -- that the Production Supervisor is someone named Andy Wheeler? (Not me, of course.)

I've never been a huge fan of American Splendor the comic book (though I have read it, on and off -- mostly off, come to think of it), but the movie got great reviews, and Harvey Pekar is a fascinating character, so I stuck it on the Netflix queue, and I felt like watching it this last week.

American Splendor the movie is a bit diffuse; it seems to be trying to hit thirty years of the comic's high points (and to play with levels of discourse, to drag an English Lit major term out of long-term storage in my skull). So it starts with a brief scene of Harvey Pekar (our hero, a writer of autobiographical comics and long-time Cleveland VA Hospital file clerk) as a kid in about 1950, and then jumps ahead to the end of his second marriage in 1975 and his subsequent comics "career." He meets weird with Joyce Brabner, and marries her almost immediately. He goes on Letterman's show, then feuds with Letterman (for no clearly articulated reason -- I just got the feeling that Harvey was too cranky too tolerate Letterman's jibes any more). He gets cancer, and lives through it. The bits of his life the movie shows are interesting, but I'm already familiar with this time in Pekar's life -- what I really want to know is how he got there.

Pekar's narration at the beginning describes him as an "intellectual," but he works in a mindless job for decades (and never seems to even try to do anything else) and he talks in an aggressively lower-class way (though that is probably deliberate). He makes no effort to present himself as an intellectual, or to do intellectual things (until after his comic book makes him a minor celebrity, and he starts writing reviews of jazz records). So how and why is he an intellectual? Did he ever try to have a more demanding career? What was he like as a young man?

All in all, this is a movie that could have really benefited from more structure -- the real-Harvey parts are great, but they should have been organized to structure the movie, and the interviewer should have pushed Pekar to explain himself more. As always with autobiographical cartoonists, what looks like pure soul-bearing honesty is usually hiding something; this movie was an opportunity to explore what Pekar has been hiding about himself, and I missed that.

Still, it's a lot of fun, and a very engaging movie. The metafictional conceits are sly and well-handled, and it actually does have something like a storyline (basically: Harvey finds fame, Harvey finds love, Harvey gets cancer). It just could have been so much more. (But I seem to say that about every movie; I may just be a tough audience.)

More iTunes Wankery

I have been struck in the head by another meme, and this is it:

Total number of tracks: 14,262

Sort by song title:
  • First Song: "? (Modern Industry)" by Fishbone (Fishbone 101)
  • Last Song: "[japanese characters] (Acoustic Version) (Kaze ni Naru)" by Ayano Tsuji (Koi Suru Megane)
Sort by time:
  • Shortest Song: "Kangaroo -- SFX" by Carl Stalling & the Warner Brothers Orchestra -- 3 seconds
  • Longest Song: "Pelleas und Melisande" by Arnold Schoenberg and/or Pierre Boulez directing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra -- 40 minutes, 20 seconds
Sort by album:
  • First Song: "Don't Go in the Basement" by Oingo Boingo (listed as (outtake))
  • Last Song: "Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo)" by Manfred Mann (no album listed)
  • Last Song That Actually Has an Album: "[japanese characters] (Tayorinai bokurano hateshinai ashita)" by Ayano Tsuji (Koi Suru Megane)
Top 10 Most Played Songs:
  1. "Don't Drop the Baby" by the Judybats -- 35 times
  2. "Pictures of Matchstick Men" by Camper Van Beethoven -- 32 times
  3. "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding" by Elvis Costello and the Attractions -- 31 times
  4. "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" by U2 -- 31 times
  5. "Better Things" by Fountains of Wayne -- 30 times
  6. "Little Red Light" by Fountains of Wayne -- 30 times
  7. "Spider Man" by Ramones -- 30 times
  8. "Why Does The Sun Shine? (The Sun Is A Mass of Incandescent Gas) (live)" by They Might Be Giants -- 30 times
  9. "The Spine Surfs Alone" by They Might Be Giants -- 29 times
  10. "I Will Follow" by U2 -- 29 times
  11. "Don't Let Me Down, Gently" by The Wonder Stuff -- 29 times
  • "sex" -- 42 songs
  • "love" -- 592 songs
  • "you" -- 1226 songs
  • "death" -- 78 songs
  • "hate" -- 35 songs
  • "wish" -- 38 songs
  • "monkey" -- 35 songs

Rules for Living, No. 2

Rule No. 2: "Human memory," in most places, is about thirty years. In a tight-knit family or particularly backward-looking organization, it may stretch as far as fifty or seventy years. But even the USA, one of the youngest and wildest countries in the world, has a history of two hundred years and more.

So always remember that "we've always done it this way" only means "our grandparents did it an entirely different way, but we've forgotten about that."

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Book-A-Day #52 (9/7): Boneyard, Vol. 5 by Richard Moore

The fifth collection of the comics dramedy-set-in-a-graveyard, including one issue that should have been in the previous collection (as a sheepish letter from the author explains, since it concludes that storyline) and a complete story, mostly about a summer camp plagued by a serial killer.

It's a bit odd going to a Richard Moore all-ages book (this one has some titillation and innuendo, but no actual on-page nudity) after recently reading some of his porn: his dialogue and character styles pretty much are what they are, so it's easy to imagine what porn-Moore would have done with some of these situations. (And that can be distracting.)

This book is cute and light and fun, but there's some backstory in the set-up that I think will have to be resolved at some point, so I hope Moore doesn't drag it out too long. (Specifically, if Lilith comes back every twenty issues or so, and is foiled every time without anything more definitive happening, I will begin to Be Annoyed.)

Book-A-Day #51 (9/6): Thumbsucker by Walter Kirn

As I said a couple of posts below, I read this because I'd just seen the movie made from it. (Which is not the ideal way to read a book, but it got the book off my shelf and into my hands, which is a plus.) I'd previously read Kirn's Up in the Air and vaguely liked it, but I wasn't on any particular quest to read all of his books. In fact, as I recall, I picked up the novel because of the movie, as I fairly often read books rather than seeing the movies made from them (I read The English Patient that way, for example).

Thumbsucker the novel is an episodic, apparently very autobiographical tale of a young man who spends his teenage years (in the early '80s, from internal evidence) first sucking his thumb a lot, and then searching for alternatives. It's divided into three essentially independent parts: "Mouth to Mouth" (in which the boy stops thumbsucking and joins the debate team), "Hyper" (in which he goes on Ritalin), and "Kingdom Come" (in which the whole family converts to Mormonism -- the movie doesn't even touch this material).

I was prepared to like this a lot; Justin Cobb, the hero of the book, is probably only two years older than I am, and so I'm very familiar with and sympathetic with his high school experiences. (And how many Americans don't secretly think high school was the defining point of their lives?) But the book just meanders around and doesn't really go anywhere; it made the fairly meandering movie look like an exemplar of tight plotting, which is a difficult thing.

Thumbsucker the book is enjoyable, but not wonderful: it's probably most interesting to men born in the late '60s or early '70s somewhere in middle America.

Video Log: Star Wars: The Clone Wars Vol. 1

It was very well-designed and visually interesting, but I'm afraid I was mostly doing other things (eating lunch, reading the Times) while it was on this afternoon. The boys chose it as the "Boys Movie Saturday" pick, which I was quite happy with -- the other thing they got from the library was Pokemon 3, which I'd rather not see again.

So I don't have much of an opinion about it, though there's a good chance the boys will be watching it again over the next couple of weeks (until it needs to go back to the library), so I will certainly have the opportunity to amend that if I feel like it.

Movie Log: Thumbsucker

I've now seen two movies since this one (I'm getting backed up on my "obligatory" posts), so my memory is a bit fuzzy. Plus, I read the book immediately after watching the movie, which is the reverse of how I usually like to do things.

Thumbsucker is yet another one of those small American indy movies with an interesting cast and a moderately high-brow pedigree (this time, it's directed by Mike Mills and from a well-regarded bildungsroman novel by Walter Kirn) about dysfunctional families. It's not absolutely wonderful, but if you like that sort of movie (and I guess I do, since I seem to gravitate to them), you'll enjoy it. Lou Taylor Pucci is good as the teenage kid at the center of the movie; this is basically the story of how he finally stops sucking his thumb at age seventeen and what he finds to take the place of that (in rough order: debate club, sex, drugs, New York City).

Keanu Reeves is remarkably good in a smaller part as the boy's dentist; from the evidence of this movie, he could have been a great character actor, instead of a ridiculously rich and famous but laughably bad leading man. (Choices, choices.)

Oh, and for those of you like me who have been puzzled: the director Mike Mills is not the same person as the R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills. I keep forgetting which guy quit R.E.M., and when, and the director Mills first popped onto the scene soon after that, so I kept thinking it was the same guy. It isn't.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Quote of the Week

I'm in a good mood today, so you get a happy, uplifting quote this time:

"Life is a God-damned, stinking, treacherous game and nine hundred and ninety-nine men out of a thousand are bastards."
- Theodore Dreiser

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Book-A-Day #50 (9/5): Sloth by Gilbert Hernandez

To my mind, Gilbert is the Hernandez brother with more daring -- his brother Jaime is a slightly better artist, and probably more popular, but Gilbert has a fearlessness and a willingness to try anything on the comics page that is breathtaking.

This is his first major work that has nothing to do with Love and Rockets, the comic he and Jaime (and a third brother, who quickly dropped out) started about twenty-five years ago. That overstates the case, though: it's a magic-realist story set in the southwestern US (probably somewhere in California), about a group of Mexican-Americans -- just like much of his Love and Rockets work.

Sloth is the story of a love triangle and a year-long coma that might -- or might not -- have been self-willed. The question of who was in the coma is also not as clear-cut as you might expect. It doesn't work as well as Gilbert's best Love and Rockets work, but it's a major novel in comics form, as well as being a great introduction to Gilbert's work for someone for whom twenty-five years of Love and Rockets is just too daunting.

Movie Log: Howl's Moving Castle

I should stop slandering my sons, because they actually did want to watch a good movie this last weekend. Howl's Moving Castle is the most recent Miyazaki movie, and nearly the last of his films I have to see. (I still haven't caught My Neighbor Totoro -- though I could have, since the boys popped it in right after Howl for a Miyazaki double-feature -- and then after that I think I'll need to try to dig up his pre-Studio Ghibli work.)

Of course, Thing 1 did declare the movie to be "too weird" and ran upstairs several times during the middle, and Thing 2 joined him once, but what can you do? My older son is very affected by emotion in movies, and sometimes runs away if he even suspects a sad part is coming up. (I also had to warn them to hide their faces when it looked like there might be kissing, but that's to be expected from eight- and five-year-old boys.)

I don't think Howl is quite as successful and of a piece as Spirited Away is, but it's close. The plot moves at its own pace and in its own directions; it all feels organic, but it also (amazingly) never falls into any of the expected plots or patterns. I did read the Diana Wynne Jones novel (of the same title) that the movie is based on, but that was several years ago, so I don't remember it well enough to be sure what's different in the movie.

A young woman, Sophie, is working in a hat-maker's shop in the standard unnamed Miyazaki country (vaguely European, though this one seems to be a bit more late-19th century rather than his typical pseudo-1930s), which is sliding into war, for unspecified reasons, with its unnamed neighbor. (As I vaguely recall, this was all clearly specified, and made sense, in the Jones novel, so I guess Miyazaki was going for a feel of timelessness.) Sophie has a run-in with a dashing young wizard, and then falls afoul of a nasty witch through no real fault of her own. (I don't know if this is a Miyazaki thing, a Japanese thing, or just coincidence, but the magical plots work this way in several Miyazaki movies, and it feels very real and concrete, especially compared with the usual run of crudely didactic American animation: bad things happen to good people just because they're in the wrong place at the wrong time, not due to any moral failing that they then fix over the course of the movie and announce their redemption of with a big schmaltzy production number.)

So: Sophie is cursed, turned old. She believes the mysterious and dangerous wizard Howl can cure her, and so she sets off to find him. Of course he turns out to be the wizard she met in the beginning of the movie, and of course they eventually fall in love. Howl is magnificently selfish and vain, and Sophie is strong-willed but unsure of herself -- and yet the plot does not follow the well-worn romance tropes that those character types would lead us to expect. It meanders and sidetracks, always fascinating but never predictable.

In common with Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, there's no real villain here -- several characters seem to be stepping into that role (starting with the nasty witch), but then step down to do other things, or wander off from the main plotline.

Miyazaki's movies are simply amazing, and his last few are clearly his best. It's heartening to discover someone like him, especially to a viewer like me, who desperately wants to see more good fantasy and more good animation in the movies. He's getting old, but, with luck, he could have another two or three good movies in him. I certainly hope so

Obsolete Skill Meme

I got this one from the amazing Ellen Kushner, who was Latin. I, on the other hand, am...

What obsolete skill are you?

You are 'Gregg shorthand'. Originally designed to enable people to write faster, it is also very useful for writing things which one does not want other people to read, inasmuch as almost no one knows shorthand any more.You know how important it is to do things efficiently and on time. You also value your privacy, and (unlike some people) you do not pretend to be friends with just everyone; that would be ridiculous. When you do make friends, you take them seriously, and faithfully keep what they confide in you to yourself. Unfortunately, the work which you do (which is very important, of course) sometimes keeps you away from social activities, and you are often lonely. Your problem is that Gregg shorthand has been obsolete for a long time.
Take this quiz!


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Rules for Living, No. 1

This may turn into an irregular series, or it may not.

Rule No.1: The man who habitually refers to stories or novels as "tales" is almost guaranteed to be long-winded and opinionated in an odd fashion. He may still be worth listening to, but one must make sure to re-set one's Crank-O-Meter before engaging.

Women, for whatever reason, are far less subject to this affliction.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Overrun By Wolverines

Mike Sterling, my favorite comics blogger, has just found nineteen people claiming to be "Wolverine" on MySpace.

Please join him in pointing and laughing.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Reading Into the Past: Week of 9/3

I just gave last week a miss, but this week I'll start again, and head back to 1996:
  • Roy Morris, Jr., Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company (8/28)
    As I recall, this was a decent biography of Bierce, but it sent me on a ten-plus year search for the definitive bio of Bierce, by Richard O'Connor. (Which I eventually found, a year or two ago, but still haven't read.)
  • Tom DeHaven, Derby Dugan's Depression Funnies (8/29)
    One of DeHaven's several novels set in and around the comics world (this time the strip cartoons of the 1930s). I hadn't remembered reading it at all.
  • Harlan Ellison, Over the Edge (8/30)
    Originally a '60s collection of Ellison stories, here read in its incarnation as the first half of Edgeworks 1, the first of four 2-in-1 Ellison volumes published by White Wolf in the mid-90s. The White Wolf books were nicely produced, though the relationship of the books in the 2-in-1 often were less than obvious. As always, Ellison used reprintings as reasons to write new introductions, clean up corrupt texts, and (to the consternation of bibliographers everywhere) change the Tables of Contents. In this case, he added to Over the Edge the late 1980s essay "Xenogenesis," a listing of various horrible, cruel and nasty things people had done to SF writers he liked...
  • Connie Willis and Cynthia Felice, Promised Land (8/30)
    I swear to God these were actually the books I read, in this order, on the same day, back in 1996. This is a slight, very romance-novel-y, SF novel that was enjoyable at the time, but which I remember no more than any other meringue I consumed that year.
  • Patti Perret, The Faces of Fantasy (8/31)
    A nice book of pictures of fantasy writers, along with essays by those writers. Unfortunately, I have bad memories of it, since it was supposed to be a Big Deal, and it was not. In fact, it was a Huge Disaster, massively overprinted for the sales it got, and I think the publisher was still trying to get rid of stock of it five years later. We were stuck with a mass of them in the SFBC, too, and Tor kept trying to sell theirs to us and we kept trying to sell ours to them. Now it's probably an expensive and rare collector's item, but ten years ago you couldn't give the thing away.
  • Jonathan Lethem, As She Climbed Across the Table (8/31)
    Possibly Lethem's most successful SF novel, this is very much a homage to Philip K. Dick; the tale of a physicist's doomed love for a point anomaly.
  • Ward Moore, Bring the Jubilee (9/1)
    A very nicely written alternate history in which the South clobbered the North in the US Civil War and became a major dominating world power. Nicely atmospheric, but I couldn't believe the alternate world for five seconds; the CSA just didn't have the manpower or the economic clout to make any of the backstory plausible.
  • Julian May, Sky Trillium (9/1)
    One of the many contradictory sequels to Black Trillium. As I recall, I liked this one the best of all of them; May tried the hardest to write the other authors' characters well and to contradict the wildly differing sequels the least. A valiant effort, at the very least.
  • Kevin Eastman, Eric Talbot and Simon Bisley, Melting Pot (9/1)
    Minor comics project that was supposed to become huge; as I recall, this was Eastman's bid for a big post-Turtles comeback. As you might have noticed, it didn't happen quite that way. Of course, I don't think anything launched in 1996 became huge; it was a bad time for comics in general.
  • Matt Howarth and Lou Stathis, Those Annoying Post Brothers: Das Loot (9/1)
    First collection of the great comics series about a couple of entertaining reality-shifting psychopaths.
  • Matt Howarth, Those Annoying Post Brothers: Disturb the Neighbors (9/1)
    Second collection, ditto.
Hey, I'm back on the horse. Let's see if I can stay there...