Saturday, December 31, 2005

Thing 2's Birthday Presents

I should blog about this before I forget it:

Thing 2 was born, as careful readers of this blog will already have noted, two days after Christmas. So he's doomed to be one of those unfortunate kids whose birthday fades into the general Christmas rush, and who faintly believes that he's not getting His Fair Share Of The Loot. (And that definitely did happen this year; Thing 1 had both more presents and better, more expensive stuff -- including a Nintendo DS, since that was what he's been saying for the past four months was the one things he definitely, positively wanted -- than his little brother. Luckily, Thing 2 is still in awe of his brother, and shares everything, so it wasn't a big deal. It probably will be next year, though, if we're not more careful.)

However, Thing 2 is more of a people person; he's just friendlier with other kids, better at playing with others, and just has a sunnier, happier disposition. So he'll probably have aspects of his life that Thing 1 will envy (and that's actually good, since you don't want the balance of power among the kids to be all one way). His birthday party (which was at the nexus of all five-year-old-ness, Chuck E. Cheese's) was very well attended (possibly also because it was a lousy day on Thursday), and so Thing 2 had a lot of his friends (and his brother) around him for his party, and got a lot of presents then.

That was a sidebar, actually: what I wanted to mention was that we got Thing 2 an aquarium for his birthday (to be something new and special that's very different from his brother -- we do have two hamsters that the two of them basically share as pets, and I forget exactly when or how we got them). He also got two fish on his birthday; The Wife went out with Thing 1 to pick them out just before dinner on Tuesday. The Wife was out shopping again today, and got him a third fish.

The first two fish are named Nicky and Bicky (along the lines of the hamsters, named Harriman and Carriman). But the third one was named by Thing 1, and, since he's obsessed by video games, we now have a fish named Mario, Jr.

When In Doubt, Go For the Meme

And this seems to be the one du jour:

Who's Your Happy Bunny?

hi. cram it.

And I share that corporatized expression of tween angst and affordable rebellion with 16% of the other people taking the quiz, which makes me feel extra-special.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Quote of the Week

I've been saving up this one for this weekend:

"If one elects to live with barbarians, one must endure the barbarous noises of their barbarous superstitions, but the disagreeable simpleton who sits up till midnight to ring a bell or fire a gun because the earth has arrived at a given point in its orbit should nevertheless be deprecated as an enemy to his race."
-Ambrose Bierce

Thursday, December 29, 2005

My Ten Favorite Books of the Year

Book-bloggers seem to be required to do something like this when a year ends, so I guess it's my turn. But I wanted to do it differently than everyone else, just to cause trouble, so I'm going to list the best book I read each month. (Let's see if I need to weasel out of any of the months as I go...)

January: it would have to be The Silmarillion (Second Edition) by that Tolkien guy. Runners-up (and things that were actually written this decade) are Candyfreak by Steve Almond and How To Be Good by Nick Hornby.

February: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, which might actually qualify as a fantasy novel (to some people, at least). Also good was Tom Perotta's Little Children, and two best of the year collections (Dozois's Year's Best Science Fiction, Twenty-Second Annual and Strahan's Best Short Novels: 2005, which is probably a huge cheat to mention).

March: Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds, with Malcolm Gladwell's Blink as the runner-up. And that's probably the only time you'll see those two books mentioned together.

April: I read three really good, very different, all new books back-to-back, starting with Saturday by Ian McEwan, continuing with Accelerando by Charles Stross and ending up with James B. Stewart's DisneyWar. The last ran out of steam and outgrew its bounds as it went along, so it's the least of the three. And it might damage my skiffy credentials, but I'm afraid that McEwan's Saturday edges out Stross in the damn good novels sweepstakes, but they're both well worth reading.

May: It's really not fair to count Jane Jacob's The Death and Life of Great American Cities, so I'll just note I finally got to it this year. The best new thing I read this month was Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, with Thud! by Terry Pratchett a close second.

June: I read two excellent Tom Perrotta novels (Election and The Wishbones), which are old and don't count. John Mortimer's latest memoir, Where There's a Will, was very disappointing. Freakonomics (by Steven Leavitt and Stephen Dubner) was thought-provoking and interesting, but not a great book. Jonathan Lethem's book of essays, The Disappointment Artist, was fascinating, but in large part for non-literary reasons. So the best thing I read that month was The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks, despite the hurried ending.

July: I did read, and was quite impressed by, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince that month, but I'm vindictive enough not to want to count it as the best of that month. Luckily, I have another excellent candidate, with the shiny glow of nepotism about it: One Million A.D. edited by Gardner Dozois. Ken MacLeod's Learning the World was also quite good.

August: I spent half this month reading Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson, which is only new to Americans. Sarah Vowell's essay collection Take the Cannoli was also notably good, and also several years old. Somewhat newer, and clearly the best, was the immense, and immensely great, collection The Masque of Manana by Robert Sheckley, which gathered a massive number of his mordantly funny stories.

September: I think Ptolemy's Gate by Jonathan Stroud sneaks past David Marusek's Counting Heads on points; both are excellent novels (the Marusek is possibly the best SF novel of the year), but Stroud sticks the landing, ties up a great trilogy, and tells his story through three different viewpoint characters. Also notable in my pile this month was Ibid by Mark Dunn, a novel told entirely in footnotes and Jasper Fforde's The Big Over Easy, first in a new series.

October: Several good things came across my plate this month: Strange Itineraries by Tim Powers, Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link (which I got to several years after everyone else), and Crystal Rain by Tobias S. Buckell. (Though, just for parallelism, I wish there had been a really good book named Strangest Something-or-Other.) But the best book I read this month, and the most purely entertaining thing I'd read since Gaiman's book five months before, was Sean McMullen's wonderful Voidfarer.

November: There wasn't anything I loved unreservedly, but the best book I read was easily Quantico by Greg Bear. No runners-up worth mentioning here; I've already blogged about most of what I read that month.

December: David Keck's In the Eye of Heaven is a very impressive first fantasy novel, set in a fantasy world I'd think was influenced by Gene Wolfe's recent "Wizard Knight" diptych, if I didn't already know something about publishing schedules. But even better than that was River of Gods by Ian McDonald (which is guaranteed to be on no one else's list this year, since it was published in the UK in 2004 and won't be out in the US until 2006).

So, there it is. My top ten swelled to twelve through trickery, and half of them probably aren't available to most US readers yet. But they're the best books I read, and that and a buck eighty-seven will get you a decaf latte.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

That's Entertainment!

I'm not going to toss in yet another potted post today, since that would be cheating.

I spent most of the day out with the family, first seeing the Golden Dragon Acrobats at the wonderfully cozy New Victory Theater on 42nd Street in NYC. It's a dedicated theater for kids and family shows, and I've been a member for two seasons now (and have seen a bunch of good shows pretty cheaply). This was one of the best events; Golden Dragon is a relatively large troupe (about two dozen young contortionists and acrobats with different specialties), and the New Vic is quite compact (less than 500 seats total, I think), which means everyone has a good view. The show was a bit less than two hours long, with lots of really impressive moments. If you've seen acrobats (especially Chinese), you know the sort of thing: juggling umbrellas, chair towers, pole climbing, plate spinning, and so on -- lots of really physically impressive activities, some of which look really dangerous.

So that one I recommend. After that, we went to do something that I don't recommend.

We went to dinner at the massively busy tourist-trap restaurant Mars 2112, on Broadway at 51st street. The wife thought last week (when the transit strike was going on) that we could try to go there after the show, since the city would probably be a bit quiet, and the boys would enjoy it. Well, the strike is over, so #1 was very untrue (though Thing 1 and Thing 2 did like the restaurant a lot). The decor of the restaurant is fairly well done, and breaks up what could be a huge, cavernous dining room; and the theming of the whole restaurant is solid, as well. But the wait is punishing -- forty-five minutes or so just to get in the door, another half-hour or more in lines just inside, then a ten-minute "ride to Mars" drops you off in another waiting area, where you cool your heels for at least another half-hour. We got in line at about quarter after four, and didn't sit down at a table until 6:25. They need to at least make the extent of the wait clear to their customers.

As I said, physically the place is interesting, but it's an overpriced generic-American feedery (prices are about the level of -- though the food is not nearly as good as, nor are there as many decent choices as -- an Olive Garden or Red Lobster). The menu has a bunch of bland chicken dishes that come very quickly, presumably because nothing is cooked to order. I wasn't expecting wonderful food, but I was hoping for competent chain-restaurant stuff, and I didn't get even that. The food quality is about sit-down-restaurant-in-a-theme-park level, which is ridiculous for midtown Manhattan. I won't be going back.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

My Favorite Non-Genre Books of 2000

Since it's now the end of one year, this is slightly less random than it would be if I posted it in June, so it's going up now. It was originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written 1/11/01, and probably existed because someone asked "Hey, what books did everyone like this past year?":

Well, of the books I read in 2000 that don't get put on the usual SF/Fantasy/Horror racks, the best were:

Paul Hoffman, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers -- a great biography of mathematician Paul Erdos, who was practically an alien himself.

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs & Steel -- explains all of human history, based mostly on geography and domesticable animals.

Joe Queenan, Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler -- zippy collection of essays from my favorite movie reviewer (it's perfect because he hates everything and I hardly ever get to see movies, so I don't feel like I'm missing anything).

Joel Achenbach, Captured by Aliens -- a serious look at UFO loonies by a guy previously known for lightweight "silly fact" books.

Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm and Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle -- two funny and touching looks at rural England in about mid-century.

Paco Underhill, Why We Buy -- a fascinating look at modern marketing strategies

Slavomir Rawicz, The Long Walk -- this guy was a Polish POW in Siberia and, with a few others, broke out and walked to India. Amazing true story.

Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country -- I still think Notes from a Small Island is his best & funniest book, but he's one of the smoothest, most engaging writers around.

Lawrence Block, Ronald Rabbit Is a Dirty Old Man -- either the funniest sex novel ever written or the comedy with the most "good parts," take your pick. Back in print recently for the first time in decades.

And, last but not least, Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth -- an absolutely brilliant graphic novel about despair, loneliness and other cheery topics.

Cat-Vacuuming In Our Time

I'm on vacation this week, so I should be using my time to do useful things (like reading books that are too unwieldy to carry to and from work) or fun family things (like playing with my two sons). But, what I've actually been doing way too much of these last two days is re-reading my old rec.arts.sf.written posts, ostensibly to cannibalize them for blog entries.

Yes, now I have another dozen or so canned entries that just need to be edited slightly and popped in, but I've also wasted huge swaths of two days in getting to this point. I keep looking up and realizing another two hours have passed by, pointlessly.

So, after all that, I'm going to inflict one of those old things on you now. Not sure which one yet -- I'll have to look at them all again...

Monday, December 26, 2005

One Way To Look at the Near Future

Nothing much happened today, and nothing has sparked any interesting thoughts, so I'm digging back into the archives again, for this, which was originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written 10/20/04:

I've got two small children (born 1998 and 2000), so, when I'm reading a near-future SF book, I try to work out what they could plausibly be doing in this world. (A book gets bonus points if I can imagine myself still alive and productive in that world, though I don't really expect it in a story set in, say, 2200.) If a book is set in 2030, and the mid-thirties hero is obsessed with the Grateful Dead, I try to picture my son Alex, or one of his class-mates, fitting that description. This works with any SF work set up to about fifty years in the future, though it does help if you know a couple of kids. (My younger son won't hit current retirement age until 2065, and I'm sure he'll have a flying car by then.)

Somewhat related to this is my major unreasoning prejudice, which I'm sure I've mentioned here before: I really take a dislike to books that kill me and/or my family. Additional points are subtracted if the mega-death I'm presumably part of is merely so the author can clear the slate for his hairy-chested he-men to do their mightily-thewed thing without having so many civilians to stand in the way of the broadsword's back-stroke. I know I'm supposed to identify with the thick-headed oaf, but I'm not that stupid -- I live 25 miles from New York City, am currently dependent on heart medication, and am responsible for a wife and the aforementioned two young children. If the balloon goes up, I'm toast -- and so I resent stories in which balloons are let free gleefully.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Reading Into the Past: Week of 12/25

A slightly different methodology this week -- since my reading notebook picks up in December of 1990, I have fifteen years of history I could write about. But my old randomization (two dice) only generated numbers from 2 to 12. Since I think higher numbers will be more fun -- I'll be more likely to forget what the books even were, for one thing -- I'm going to three dice this week (and probably going forward), but I'll re-roll if I get anything above 15. (Did I ever mention I'm geeky? Just in case you didn't notice yet: I'm geeky.)

After all that, this week we only get a 5, sending me back to the books I was reading this week in 2000:
  • Sean Williams and Shane Dix, Evergence: A Dark Imbalance (12/18)
  • Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (12/20)
    Whiplash? Who, me?
  • Roger Highfield, The Physics of Christmas (12/21, quit unfinished)
  • Jean David Morvan & Philippe Buchet, Wake 1: Fire & Ash (12/22)
  • Marini and Smolderen, Gipsy: The Gipsy Star (12/23)
  • R.A. Salvatore, Ascendence (12/24)
  • Jane and Howard Frank, The Frank Collection (12/25)
What I was mostly reading that week (fairly slowly) was Alastair Reynolds's Revelation Space. But the other thing I was doing (and one reason why I was reading so slowly) was Thing 2, who was due 12/25/00, and eventually delivered as a scheduled C-section two days later. (One of our stops, that Christmas day five years ago, in between visiting one family and the other, was at my wife's hospital for her every-other-day checkup and final preparations for the C-section two days later; I read Revelation Space in the car with the sleeping two-year-old Thing 1 while she went in.)

Dark Imbalance was the third of the "Evergence" books, which I read back-to-back. I remember they were fun space operas with some superhuman something-or-others, but that's about it.

Sun Also Rises is the one with the dickless ambulance driver, right?

Physics of Christmas just didn't grab me, so I never went back to it.

Then there were two European comics, which weren't meant to remain in memory in the first place, and didn't.

I don't remember which one Ascendence was, but I enjoyed that Salvatore series (the middle book and the second trilogy; I never read the first one) much more than I expected to. The middle book in particular was a very good what-happens-after-the-world-gets-saved book, but my impression is that Salvatore fans didn't take to that series as much, and non-Salvatore fans said "Ew, he writes game tie-ins; I won't bother to read anything he writes." (I just went and looked it up, and the book I mean is Mortalis; give it a try someday, since it stands on its own quite well.)

And I greatly covet the Franks' art collection. The house, too, but I'd settle for the art.

And that'll do. Happy Christmas, everyone.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Just Read: Mage: The Hero Defined by Matt Wagner

Yes, it's a comic book. But it's a really fat comic book, in hardcovers and everything, with pretty full-color printing on every page, and it looks like a real book when you put it on a shelf.

Also, I read at least as much comics stuff as pure-prose stuff, and I often like the comics much better. So I'll be talking about them every so often here, along with old-fashioned books. But I still won't call what I'm doing reviewing, since I'm not unbiased, not unconnected to the books I read, and not above stretching the truth or a point to avoid getting myself in trouble.

Anyway, this is the second book in a projected trilogy, after Mage: The Hero Discovered in the mid-'80s and to be followed by Mage: The Hero Denied sometime, we hope, before Wagner kicks off. (There's a Wikipedia entry on the series, for further reference.) I think of it as essentially a superhero book, or, at farthest remove, the first cousin to a superhero comic. I may be alone in this, though, since I thought the same thing about Crossgen's output -- people regularly appearing in the same distinctive costumes, check; saving the world, check; neat-o kean-o powers, check; talking about one's responsibilities, I'm afraid that was there, too -- and everyone else seemed to be amazed that a company could be briefly successful publishing popular comics that were so different from the superhero mainstream.

Kevin Matchstick is our hero; in Discovered he (and we) learned that he was essentially Wagner's version of Moorcock's Eternal Champion; Matchstick was the reincarnation/new version/whatever of King Arthur, and he had been called forth from the collective domahickey to battle a Big Nasty called the Umbra Sprite and his sons and minions. It was a bit rough to begin with (it opens with a wince-making dialogue scene where Matchstick both wears his heart on his sleeve and explains everything about his life), but gained strength and confidence as it went along; the final chapters have genuine mythic power.

Unfortunately, this book tends slightly in the opposite direction; there's a lot of good stuff throughout, but the ending of Defined is pretty talky and devoted to speeches about "this is the purpose of your life" (something comics can't seem to avoid, but which gives me hives). It's not a bad ending, but it does feel a bit like a reversion to the earliest, clunkiest days of Mage; Wagner handles it much more skillfully this time around (it's all good dialogue, for one thing), but I'm still not convinced all of that talking about the relationship was necessary. At most this is a stumble, but the big confrontation at the end of Defined doesn't compare to the similar moment at the end of Discovered; then again, that may just be yet another incarnation of the Eternal Middle-Book Problem, doomed to haunt spinner racks and mall stores unto eternity...

I can't really recommend a series of two $50 hardcovers to new readers, but the two series used to be (and may still be) available as four trade paperbacks each, at price points in the $10-$15 range, which are more browser-friendly. Since the series is an interesting amalgam of self-aware comics superheroes, epic-fantasy-influenced questing, and contemporary fantasy soul-searching, anyone with an interest in any of those areas might want to give it a look. (Browse one of the books in your local comics shop until the proprietor looks up from his Magic: The Gathering game long enough to growl, "Hey, kid, this ain't no liberry!" and decide then if you want to buy it.)

The other interesting thing about this series (much more evident in Defined than Discovered) is the elements of autobiography. Matchstick is explicitly physically modeled on Wagner himself, and one of the subplots of this book is a fantasy version of Wagner's courtship of his wife. In Discovered Wagner/Matchstick was the only character (that I know of) that was modeled from life, but, in Defined, we learn that there are many heroes (or warriors, or avatars; different people call them different things, as of course would happen). And that is the particularly interesting part, since all of the warriors are comics creators Wagner knows. (One side note, of an unfortunate nature: we don't see, or even hear of, any female warriors, though mythology certainly provides them for Wagner to pick up. This may be a deliberate choice on Wagner's point -- perhaps for simple story reasons, or to focus on the "boy's club" aspect of comics -- but I do wish there was at least a throwaway reference to "the Warrior Queen" or somesuch.)

So, since this series started coming out (around about 1997, I think), I've been looking for a complete guide to the characters. I think I know who most of them are, but some I wonder about. (And surely the obsessive world of comics would have produce someone who would do this, right?) I looked when the single issues finished, and didn't find anything. I looked again when the trade paperback collections came out, and found nothing. Let's Google again...

And there's something! It's not complete, and it tries to fit all of the characters into the same schema, which is probably a bad idea (the three sisters do map very obviously to Wagner's real-life wife and her two sisters, but they are also clearly not avatars; Magda, the love-interest in Defined, says so explicitly). Similarly, the mages (Mirth in Discovered and Wally Ut in Defined) are also the same mythic figure (Merlin), and probably do not map onto a real-world person. The Pale Incanter and Umbra Sprite also show no signs of being modeled on any real-world persons. (And that chart also misses Wagner's fictionalized ex-brother-in-law-in-law, the giant Gretch Bartholomew, husband of Magda's sister Isis -- as I recall, the real-world person filling that slot is Bob Schreck, who used to be married to Diana Schutz.)

So let me run through the heroes myself, in the order they appear in the story:
  • Kevin Matchstick is explicitly both the Pendragon (i.e., King Arthur) and Wagner himself.
  • Joe Phat is also obviously a general Trickster figure (Coyote, Rabbit, Crow, etc.; every primitive society has a mythic-figure like this), and is also stated by Wagner to have been based physically (and as a character) on comics autobiographer Joe Matt.
  • Kirby Hero is called The Olympian, has a sister named Athena and a brother named Apollo, and is in the middle of a twelve-labor job for his dad, so he's obviously Hercules. The page I linked to above (which doesn't seem to have been created by a person, but only by "Tech-Style") identified him with Canadian artist Bernie Mireault, which I agree with.
  • Kim Song is identified by Tech-Style as the Monkey King (although that would overlap quite a bit with Joe Phat's Trickster figure, and Song's affect is about as far removed from a trickster aspect as can be imagined). He also looks like he could be an older man, but I'm afraid I don't know who he could be -- I'd guess an older Asian man connected with independent comics, but that's as definite as I am.
  • Garth is "the Hornblower," clearly Roland (though he doesn't have the mythic Roland's fighting ability, just the magical horn). The Tech-Style page suggests he may be indentifed with Chester Brown, which would fit the "Canadian cartoonists" general theme, but Garth doesn't look much like Brown. I suggest, instead, that he's meant to be Scott McCloud, who usually draws himself with an identical shirt (and who, maybe, some people think is long-winded).
  • The Sun Twins are identified by Tech-Style as mapping onto Mayan Hero Twins and the Pander Brothers art team, both of which are reasonable to me. (Though I'll also add that the idea of magical twins is not unique to the Maya; we don't see them much, so we get a one-dimensional view, but I bet there's more to them than the sun-imagery.) I'd originally thought they might be the Bros. Hernandez (who have a higher profile in comics), but the Hernandezes don't have any connection to Wagner I know of; the Panders fit better.
  • The Dragon-Slayer is obviously Siegfried, and equally obviously Dave Sim, another Canadian comics writer/artist. (Whom Wagner, as I far as I know, has never worked with, which may be important in a later next discussion.)
  • The Bear-Wulf is an interesting one, at least as an in-joke, since his emblem (all of the warriors have a logo, another thing they have in common with super-heroes) is the mask of Grendel from Wagner's comic of that name. Tech-Style identifies him with Beowulf, which I agree with. They don't identify him with any comics creator, but the Bear-Wulf is balding, as I believe Chester Brown is. Otherwise, though, Wagner's depiction of the Bear-Wulf doesn't look much like Brown's self-images. The Bear-Wulf also appears older, so he may be meant to be someone from an older generation. I'm really not sure who he's supposed to be.
  • The Ulster Hound, with his two women, is clearly Cuchulain and is as obviously comics writer Alan Moore.
  • John J. Strider the Presbyter is identified by Tech-Style as Prester John (the mysterious medieval Christian king of parts unknown), which makes sense; he's probably also a saint-figure in general. Tech-Style also identifies him with John K. Snyder III, probably because Snyder worked with Wagner on the Grendel series (and the Wikipedia entry claims Defined is an allegory for Wagner's work on the Grendel series, specifically about his time dealing as a writer with other comics artists). I'm not sure I find that argument convincing; for one thing, Strider looks very physically similar to the Dragon-Slayer, which may be coincidence (I don't know what Snyder looks like) or not. Perhaps Strider is "Good Sim" and the Dragon-Slayer is "Bad Sim?" Or perhaps Strider is meant to be another Canadian comics artist, Seth? (Seth first became known as an artist for the Mr. X comic, and there's a panel where a giant cross casts the image of an X on Strider's dark glasses, which image appeared many times in the Mr. X comic.) I think, for now and without other evidence, I'm leaning towards Seth.
  • For completeness's sake, I should also note that there seem to be three other warriors (who don't speak, and are mostly at the edges of panels) at the big meeting of the warriors in issue 7). One of them could be Strider, but, from the dialogue in his later appearance, that seems unlikely. One of them also could be the Dragon-Slayer, but that seems even less likely.
Finally, to connect this to my supposed area of expertise (that would be science fiction), what Wagner has been doing with this series is a perfect example of Rudy Rucker's concept of Transrealism: writing aspects of one's own life as if they were fantastic. So any Rucker readers out there would probably want to at least check out The Hero Defined.

And this is way too long now, so I'm out of here. (Well, one last parenthetical comment: this book doesn't credit a real editor -- it does list a "managing editor" -- and it could have used one. One page is repeated twice, and another page is out of order; yet a third page may be missing. Kirby also once says "the women feint," which is not what he means. Those kind of cheap mistakes are very annoying in a $50 book.)

Friday, December 23, 2005

Quote of the Week

Let see if I have something appropriate for the season here. {looks} Well, my home state is trying to decide among five flabby mottos, so let's drag this old one out:

"Not as bad as you might have imagined."
-Motto suggested for New Jersey by Calvin Trillin

I still prefer "New Jersey: You Got a Problem With That?"

Four Things Meme

Because, you know, this blog is all about the meme thing...

1. Editor with the SFBC, with one adjective or another
2. Campus Patroller
3. Off-the-books Insurance-Agency Filing Clerk
4. Service Desk Lackey, Bradlees

1. Much Ado About Nothing
2. Love Actually
3. Fantasia
4. Finding Nemo

1. Albany, NY
2. Rochester, NY
3. Poughkeepsie, NY
4. Wayne, NJ

1. The Kids in the Hall
2. Seinfeld
3. Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends
4. Teen Titans!

1. London (the original)
2. Edinburgh
3. Lancaster, PA
4. Walt Disney World, or, as my father the Floridian calls it, "the Mouse"

1. Locus online
2. this blog
3. Google
4. rec.arts.sf.written (technically neither on the web nor a site, yes)

1. Zizzi, Glasgow, Scotland (went there three times in five days at Worldcon!)
2. Miele's, Verona, NJ (a great Italian place I've been going to for more than ten years now)
3. Good 'N' Plenty, Smoketown, PA (Amish country comfort food; not fancy but tasty and in generous supply)
4. Virgil's, NYC (wonderful barbecue, and not as touristy as it should be, from the neighborhood -- 45th street off Broadway)

1. fried chicken
2. real strawberry shortcake (made with homemade biscuits)
3. pizza (authentic Noo Joisey style)
4. jellybeans

1. Vassar College
2. Wayne Valley High School
3. George Washington Junior High
4. Packanack Lake Elementary

1. "If we had some ham, we could have some ham and eggs, if we had some eggs."
2. The names of my two sons. Often at excessive volume.
3. "And they seem to be really behind this one..." (possible publishing in-joke)
4. Counting things for no good reason. Out loud, sometimes.

1. Nowhere I can think of right now. I'm at home (and the boys are off playing at a friend's house, so it's quiet) on the first day of a long vacation, so this is pretty damn good.

I got this from The Slush God, so blame him.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Incoming Books: 22 December

This is one part stuff-I-brought-home-from-the-office and one part new-from-the-comics-shop, as if anyone cares...
  • Samurai Executioner Vol.7 by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
  • Doonesbury: The Long Road Home by G.B. Trudeau
  • Bonjour Laziness by Corinne Maier
  • Talk to the Hand by Lynne Truss
  • The Big Book of Porn by Seth Grahame-Smith
  • Vimanarama by Grant Morrison and Philip Bond
  • Wimbledon Green by Seth
  • The Acme Novelty Library, #16 by Chris Ware
    This may not count, since it's an issue of a periodical, but it is hardbound, and has a retail price higher than several of the other "books" above.
Lots of good vacation reading there.

My goals for this vacation: read one art/comics book a day (to keep the pile from falling over); watch a bunch of Netflix movies; goof off with the kids; and read at least three books for work and one "real" book for me.

Oh, and keep posting at least daily to this blog.

Hogging the Network

At one point this morning, about half an hour ago, I was printing on three separate printers at the same time. (A PowerPoint thingy on my usual printer, a manuscript on a high-speed copier, and color PDFs downstairs.) I feel manly and important.

Now, if only I was downloading something massive from the 'net at the same time...

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Dusting the Top of the Chrysler Building

I've made some (very minor) changes to some background stuff here; the description of the blog has been lightly edited, my bio is completely different, and I've taken the stupid middle initial out of my name. (Yes, there's at least one other "Andrew Wheeler" on Blogger, but I don't imagine we'll run into each other much. There's another "Hornswoggler," too, for that matter, but he writes in impenetrable Aussie slang, so we're easy to tell apart.)

Neither of you will have noticed this, of course, and you will care even less. But it keeps me busy.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Just Read: Gone to New York by Ian Frazier

"To a suburbanite just come from the city, the scratching of branches and leaves on metal is the sound of being home."

After writing a bunch of lukewarm reviews over the past few weeks, it's nice to come across a book I really enjoyed. Gone to New York is an essay collection by Ian Frazier, and it ends up being mostly about his relationship with New York City. Frazier (we learn, in bits and pieces throughout this book) grew up in a small Ohio town, went to Harvard, and then moved to New York soon after graduating. The last essay in the book, "Out of Ohio," covers the pre-New York part of his life, in an attempt to explain why he came here. Frazier lived on Canal Street for many years, then moved to Brooklyn (with three years in Montana squeezed in there somewhere), and now is in Montclair, NJ. This isn't an autobiography by any means, but it is a series of views of one city by one man, over the course of nearly three decades, and so we do learn a bit about him, as well as about the city.

The book starts out with a whole lot of "Talk" pieces from the New Yorker (yes, it's them again), each of which is a little gem, showing one aspect of city life in tight close-up, but the book also contains several longer essays, with "Canal Street" early on and several substantial pieces to finish up the book. Frazier has a good reporter's eye for a telling detail, but also allows his stories to include himself -- to even be about himself, if that's where the real story is. "Canal Street" is the longest piece; it's a look at the life of that neighborhood (right on the edge of Chinatown, and itself the major artery from New Jersey to Brooklyn) and of Frazier's life there in the '70s and '80s. There's also an interesting essay, "Typewriter Man," mostly about a man who repairs old manual typewriters.

I started the essay "Route 3," which is in part about taking the bus home from the Port Authority Bus Terminal and looking at the scenery along the way, on Route 3, in a bus, on the way home today, which makes me real damn close to being the Platonic ideal audience for this book. (I even bought it at a bookstore in Montclair.) "Route 3" was the essay I identified with the most, obviously, since I am a family man commuting in via bus on Route 3 every day (even if my suburb is another half-hour further out and noticeably shabbier than Frazier's).

This book also contains the epic story (through three essays written over a decade) of Frazier's struggle with bags in trees. There's something very New York, in all the best senses, about this -- Frazier was annoyed by seeing so many plastic bags in trees, so he and a friend set out to do something about it. New York (like other big cities, I suppose) is full of people with lots of energy and plans, and most of those plans are to make things better.

The book also contains a Foreword by Jamaica Kinkaid (to whom the book is also dedicated, which strikes me as some kind of faster-than-light log-rolling), which is pleasant, but doesn't really say anything more than that Frazier has been her friend for years, and that they both are good writers. (Which we already knew.)

Non-New Yorkers may not get as much out of this book as I did, but anyone who likes or is fascinated by cities would enjoy this book; Frazier is an excellent writer on cities, and New York is one of the iconic cities of our time.

Oh, Yeah, There's a Transit Strike in NYC

It's not affecting me in the slightest, though.

I take a NJTransit bus into the lovely Port Authority Bus Terminal (at the not-quite-as-skeevy-as-it-used-to-be corner of 42nd Street and 8th Avenue), and then walk down to my office, on East 26th Street, just north of Madison Square Park. (I have been known to take the subway during a downpour, but that's about it.)

As a matter of fact, these days I deliberately walk longer ways to work, since I'm trying to walk two miles each morning (and a direct route from PABT to the office is a bit under a mile and a half).

So today I walked up to 46th and then across town, cutting through Grand Central Terminal (which I don't think I've been inside for five years, at least) and then continuing down Park until zipping back over to Madison at 31st Street.

5th Avenue looked strange; there were police with barricades at every intersection, letting buses zip down the center lane, but stopping all other non-bike traffic. And several cross streets (I seem to recall 43rd in particular) were also closed off, for non-obvious reasons.

But, in general, it looks like a major fraction of the working population decided to take the day off. Good for them.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Things I Thought Only I Noticed

The Agony Column takes a close, piercing look at the horrors of inadequate leading in SF books today. (If you don't know what I mean, click the link.)

{shrug} Tor is a business. More specifically, they're a long-established SF business, so I'm sure they have a lot of norms, business rules, expectations, rules of thumb and historical data; all of which push books into particular niches (whether market or physical). Once they decided to publish Counting Heads (which is a wonderful novel, by the way; it may just be the best SF novel of 2005), it had to fit into specific parameters for them. It looks like that meant a 6" x 9" hardcover at 336 pages. (I suspect because they wanted to promote it as a major title, which meant 6" x 9" rather than 5 1/2" x 8 1/4".) And to fit into that package, it had to either have a lot of words on a page, or be cut down.

In the Good Old Days, a book in a situation like that would be routinely edited down to fit; if the author was really lucky, he'd have a chance to see, and swear at, the changes before they went into type. That doesn't happen anymore.

I've also seen fan anger (particularly on rec.arts.sf.written) over Tor's habit of cutting long books into several volumes, which seems to have been driven by the chain stores' diktat of about three years ago that they will not take a) SF hardcover books b) which are not "lead" titles and are c) priced above $25 retail. (And that is probably also somewhere behind the leading issue on Counting Heads as well.) Again, once any particular structure is in place, there are certain options available, but the other ones are even less palatable to the fans than book-fragments would be.

If Pyr is successful and long-lived (and I certainly hope and expect they will be), there will come a year when they decide to somewhat reduce leading on all of their titles to save some ungodly amount of money on a printing bill. And there will probably come another year when they decide to switch paper stock to save another huge piece of change. Right now, they're new and fresh and they get to start by doing things just the way they want to. I hope that lasts, but, after almost fifteen years in the belly of one particular beast, I don't really expect it.

Math Geekery Alert!

I am not myself a math geek, nor do I particularly have a dog in the "number of women in SF" fight. However, I do have to stand back in awe and amazement at what John Borneman hath wrought.

Reading Into the Past: Week of 12/18

The dice this week read 11, so we're heading back to the fabulous year 1994!

And the books I read this week in 1994 are:
  • Barbara Hambly, Star Wars: Children of the Jedi (12/11)
  • Jack Finney, Time and Again (12/12)
  • Peter S. Beagle, A Fine and Private Place (12/13)
  • Dan Simmons, Hyperion (12/15)
  • Clancy Carlile, Children of the Dust (12/17)
  • Dan Simmons, The Fall of Hyperion (12/19)

I still think of Children of the Jedi as "the best Star Wars novel," and have recommended it to several people that way (though, more recently, Matt Stover has done two books -- Traitor and Shatterpoint -- that are of the same caliber). But what I remember of the plot is that Luke is stuck on some decrepit giant death machine/starship, and has to stop it and get off. What struck me while reading it is that Luke gets injured fairly early on, and that slows him down -- actually, it increasingly slows him down, which makes him make other mistakes and get more injured. No Pearly White Glow here, and all the better for it.

Time and Again has the silliest time-travel mechanism in history (except, maybe, for that one Ian Watson story that uses masturbation), but it's still a lovely mood piece.

A Fine and Private Place is one of the great modern fantasy novels. If you (whoever "you" are) haven't read it, you really should. It's short, too.

I read both "Hyperion" novels in less than a week, with another book in the middle? Gosh. Like everyone else in the civilized world, I liked the set-up better than the ending, but the ending was still awfully good; it's just that the set-up was amazing.

Children of the Dust was a book I read for work; as I recall, it was a semi-Western (no cowboys, so I'm not sure if it counts) about a black/Indian young man in the late 1800s somewhere dusty (Oklahoma, maybe?), and how he eventually fits into a community. (I think he marries, or at least courts, a schoolmarm.) I know I did a report on it, but that was long enough ago that it's not on my current computer. I doubt anyone else ever reading this blog will have even heard of the book, or care.

(And this post is about twelve hours late because last night turned out to be busier than expected. The Things went to bed early, but then we had Christmas card troubles, and I had a movie from Netflix to watch so that it could go back this morning.)

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Incoming Books: 17 December

I went out to my favorite book store (the Montclair Book Center) to buy a Christmas present, as part of a long day of running around on various errands (the Things were with me for half the day, until their grandparents came to whisk them off to their first Christmas, one with the wife's extended family off in the wilds of New York State).

Sadly, the book I wanted to buy as a present was sold out, so I had to console myself by instead buying a lot of books for me:

  • Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders by John Mortimer
    I already read this when one of the SFBC's sister clubs did it last year, but all of my personal copies are Penguin trade paperbacks, so I needed this one to match.
  • With All Disrespect by Calvin Trillin
    A somewhat nicer second-hand hardcover to replace my ratty second-hand paperback.
  • The Mammoth Book of Illustrated Erotic Women edited by Maxim Jakubowski
    Even the non-lurid "Mammoth" books have ungainly titles, but this one is particularly oddly phrased.
  • Gone to New York by Ian Frazier
    Frazier is the author of one of the funniest short essays ever, "Coyote V. Acme." I think the pieces collected here are somewhat more serious, but they're all about New York, which I nearly always find fascinating.
  • Flashman on the March by George MacDonald Fraser
  • Private Wars by Greg Rucka
  • Dilbert: Thriving on Vague Objectives by Scott Adams
  • a book titled Dahmane, of works by the photographer of the same name
  • Frazz: Life at Bryson Elementary by Jef Mallett
    Frazz isn't in my local paper, but I've liked it whenever I've seen it, and I like strip cartoons in general. On the other hand, I just realized, typing this, that the author spells his first name with one 'f'. Oh dear.
  • Black Hole by Charles Burns
    I could have sworn I already had this, but that wasn't the case. Now I do.
  • Pornoland, photographs by Stefano De Luigi with a text by Martin Amis
    OK, I am something of a Martin Amis fan, which helps to explain why I bought this. However, I did have to be browsing the "erotica" section to find it in the first place, but let's skip over that quickly, shall we?
And, just arrived in the mail today, from the Library of America, is Letters & Speeches by Theodore Roosevelt. I wish there was some way I could get the LoA to send me specific books (such as the Ezra Pound volume, which I've wanted for a couple of years now), but this is definitely a book I want to own, and someday I even hope to read it.

Friday, December 16, 2005

That Random iPod Thing All the Cool Kids Were Doing Last Year

This is probably now hopelessly lame and out-of-date, but it's Friday, I actually have my iPod in front of me and a blog window open, so, damn it, I'm going to post the first ten random songs that come up:

1) "Sir Lanka Sex Hotel," Dead Milkmen
2) "Both Ends Burning," Richard Thompson
3) "I'm Not in Love (live)," Talking Heads
4) "Give, Give, Give Me More, More, More," The Wonder Stuff
5) "End of the Season," The Kinks
6) "Dilbert Zone," Danny Elfman
7) "Dead End Street," The Kinks
8) "Girl on the Wing," The Shins
9) "One Way Or Another," Blondie
10) "Lounge," Modest Mouse

Feel free to point and laugh...

Quote of the Week

"Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."
-Mel Brooks

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Fantasy Is Killing Science Fiction!

I think that I spend too much time reading blogs and thinking about SF/Fantasy, but, even in this, I am but a slacker.

Sometime yesterday, I saw the discussion between Gregory Benford (representing SF as The One True Literature That Will Save Us All And Used To Be Dominant) and Darrell Schweitzer (trying to respond politely to Benford's more unlikely declarations). I don't agree with Benford, but I guess I was hoping he was deliberately over-stating the case for effect. And I figured this argument, which I've seen a million times before on rec.arts.sf.written (and everywhere else, for that matter), would raise a giant "eh" from Fandom Assembled.

But then, today, I've seen long, thoughtful (but not necessarily friendly) responses to Benford from people like Scott Lynch and John Scalzi and Elizabeth Bear. I haven't seen anyone coming in on Benford's side of the argument, though, which may just mean that I'm not reading the right blogs. So I've come to the conclusion that this is Important, and I wanted to think it through myself.

I like to start with the most obvious facts first, since it's surprising how often the obvious gets completely overlooked: genre fiction is what people do in their spare time for entertainment. Seems simple, right? But what it implies is that, no matter how much people demonize "escapism," that will always be what most readers are really looking for. They might not tell you so, but it's what they want. This is why most of the mass-market paperbacks sold in the USA are romances; that's a genre that knows exactly how to push the buttons of a very large audience of people who read a lot of books.

The replies to Benford I've seen mostly run along the lines of "fantasy is, for whatever reasons I want to talk about, somewhat easier for random readers to pick up on." (Only somewhat, since we all need to remember that the whole SF/Fantasy sector is a minor backwater of fiction to begin with.) They mostly haven't jumped on the fact that reading fiction is something people do to relax and have fun, and Benford is presenting SF as a stern duty rather than as anything someone would want to do for entertainment.

Benford, essentially, is trying to defend SF as spinach. He may see it as necessary spinach, as useful spinach, as amazing and spectacular spinach, but he's still selling it as spinach. And readers don't want spinach; they eat spinach all day at work, and fiction is one way to get away from that. (Even the people who prefer hard SF, and I'm intermittently one of them myself, actually enjoy it, and don't read SF as their Duty to the Coming Race.)

But this is all a sidebar. SF and Fantasy may seem to be fighting over precious rack space, but, really, romances have been kicking both of our asses for decades now, and will for the foreseeable future. And mystery/thriller is also kicking our asses, though it's only a little bit out of our weight class, so sometimes, when we're feeling very optimistic, we start to think we might have a chance there. (Though we don't.) We're off in our little corner, and we're stuck with each other; many of the people we're stuck with are just ourselves wearing different funny hats.

Benford's essay leaves me wondering what effect he hopes to have -- is he trying to shame fantasy writers into switching over to hard SF? Or does he expect fantasy readers to rise up and break their medievalist sword-wankery chains? Neither of those seem likely from his essay.

Actually (after spending way too much time re-writing this piece and thinking about it), I do think I know what's going on here; I see this a lot from writers. I think of it as the "What I and My Friends Write Is The Most Important, Valuable, and Necessary Stuff Ever" Syndrome. It doesn't seem to be enough for a writer to believe that what he does is valuable; it must be more valuable than the things other writers are doing in different ways. It's the reason we get literary manifestos; writers don't just want to do their thing, they want to convince everyone that their thing is the only thing worth doing. At least, until they have a better idea in a year or so.

There's very little chance Greg Benford will actually read this very minor blog, but, in case he is out there: I've liked the books of yours I've read, and the world of SF (even the world of SF/Fantasy, to be more daring) is a better place with you writing part of it. I just don't understand why your answer to the problem "there isn't enough really strong SF, of the kind I like to write" is "so I'm going to stop writing novels, of the kind I just explained the field needs more of." That just doesn't track. If you want more of something, do as much of it yourself as you can, agitate for your friends and colleagues to do the same, and seek out newer writers to encourage them to follow you.

Cursing the darkness may be more fun at any given moment, but lighting candles is a much better long-term strategy.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

First Prize: One Day in Philadelphia. Second Prize: Two Days in Philadelphia!

I spent the past weekend at Philcon, a yearly science fiction convention in Philadelphia. It's been going on continuously for donkeys' years; I believe it's about the oldest regular convention running in the US. I've been going for most of the past decade. (Whee! Doesn't that make us special? I don't know why I bothered to say any of that.)

Conventions used to make me really depressed; I thought I should be having a good time (talking to people, making contacts/friends, going to parties, and all that stuff), but I didn't do much of that, and enjoyed even less of it. I'm somewhat less misanthropic and panicky now, but I'm still not what you'd call a "people person." So I more-or-less enjoyed myself in lovely Philadelphia, but I'm not really all that good at enjoying myself. There were hardly any New York publishing folk there, either, which made it feel pointless to me (not that I'd necessarily spend that much time talking to those people if they were there, but, you know, it's even worse if they're back in NYC while I'm in a snowy hotel in Philly).

I had a nice dinner Saturday with agent Joshua Bilmes, and some good hanging-around time on Friday at the bar with my boss Ellen Asher, a couple of writers (Josepha Sherman and Laura Anne Gilman, mostly), and some other people (dropping in and out). The fact that the latter counted as major socialization time for me probably isn't a point in my favor; I also had to duck out when the rest were heading to dinner because I had a 7:00 panel to moderate.

Otherwise, it was a quiet con. I moderated three things; the last of which was a "Best of the Year" panel with Gordon Van Gelder, Gardner Dozois and David Hartwell. David managed to inadvertently give me a delayed-reaction guilt trip; he mentioned that he starts reading about a hundred stories a night (but finishes reading only a few of them) for his Year's Best SF annual. (I'm not sure if he does that all year long, or if this is crunch time.) He also said something about not having time to ever read outside the genre.

Together, those two things have triggered some gloomy thoughts: I don't read anything near a hundred stories in a month, and I read outside the genre all of the time. (In fact, this blog is pretty much devoted to the out-of-genre stuff, since talking about books I read professionally immediately afterward would be...well, unprofessional, to say the least.) And my "Reading Into the Past" posts have shown me just how much I used to read. So it looks like I'm some sort of dilettante, and not nearly pulling my weight in this skiffy-editor racket. Sorry folks, I'll try to do better next year.

But, anyway, during that panel we were talking about some of the books we hadn't read yet, but wanted to, and I mentioned The Gist Hunter and Other Stories by Matthew Hughes. So that's what I'm reading now, since it's in the genre, and Hughes's stories have been getting great reviews. I should be done with it tomorrow, and, with any luck, I'll have something to say about it then.

More News From the World of Odd Lego Objects

I can't find any link on the web, but there's a photograph in my local paper (The Record, out of Hackensack, NJ) of what is believed to be the world's largest Lego menorah.

It was built by architect Stephen Schwartz, and is at Temple Beth El in Closter. It's an impressive edifice, over thirteen feet high, and is a thing of beauty. (Though, like most Lego creations, probably not a joy forever.)

I'm sorry I can't show you this thing, because it's really a sight.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Poor Ditching Boy

Well, it's happened: for the first time since I started this blog, I'm abandoning a book in the middle. I try not to do that (though lately I'm reading a lot of first-chapter-and-last-chapter for work), but it happens.

The book is Lint by Steve Aylett, a SF novel in the guise of a biography of SF writer Jeff Lint (something like Philip K. Dick seen through a fun-house mirror). I read about 40 pages; roughly a quarter of it.

It's clearly supposed to be funny and wacky, but I was just finding it dull and plodding. It's full of piles and piles of surrealism, which mainly just meant that the sentences didn't seem to track one to the next. I used to love wacky books, so it may be just that I'm getting old and crotchety. Or it may be that this isn't all that good; or maybe it picks up later on. It also seems to be the kind of book where the author throws in all of his own literary heroes to show how smart and hip he is; I decided that (rightly or not) when William S. Burroughs showed up in 1945 and was called a "paleo-cyberpunk." Aylett is just way too cool for my school, so I was out of there.

Life is too short to waste on cheap surrealism that isn't making me laugh, so I'm cutting my losses and moving on to reading something else. Not sure what yet; let's take another look at the shelves.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Random Thoughts From Reading Several Minor Heinlein Books

Once again, trying to keep up with the post-a-day pace, I dig into my vast archives of blather, and find this, which was originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written 9/7/03:

These will probably get me flamed six ways from Sunday, but, having recently read the non-fictional bits of Expanded Universe, the rediscovered For Us, The Living and the minor, oh-my-God-look-out-for-that-Brain-Eater novel Glory Road a few things keep jumping into my mind. These are wild generalizations, and probably apply much more to Heinlein's bad books to his good ones.

a) To stop a Heinlein character from talking, one must first stab the character in the heart with a sharpened stake. Then remove the head with a silver knife and stuff the mouth with garlic. Dismember the body and bury each piece at a separate crossroad at midnight on a moonless night. Burn the head while chanting incantations to Shub-Niggurath. If that doesn't work, try the tactical nukes.

b) And yet, Heinlein characters talk around things instead of actually conversing with each other. They pontificate, they blather, they stand on their own authority, they stress their interlocutor's youth/inexperience/other-cultural biases, they change the subject. Straight questions are rarely asked, and straight answers never given. After two pages of dialogue, the reader is expected to have forgotten this.

c) Related to the above, I suspect Heinlein was not one to do much research. He tends to use metaphors and indirection rather than having his characters explain how their SFnal devices and settings work, and he relies heavily on "general knowledge." (And then has the know-it-alls say things like "You're sure?" or "Our scientists thought that way as well -- a thousand years ago" with heavy sarcasm.)

d) Heinlein men all seem to be talking around the matchstick in one corner of their mouths.

e) Heinlein women are amazingly likely to be pneumatic sex kittens who are willing to sleep with the hero immediately and swear undying monogamy to him by the next morning, even after they talk at great length (but not exactly explain -- see b), above) about how such a relationship is rare, unnatural, and bizarre. And even exceptionally powerful and able women will be not only cowed, but sexually excited and thrilled at being threatened with a spanking. Not that spankings and such seem to feature much in their sexplay, mind you, but that Heinlein men use threats of violence to keep their women in line, and those women honestly think those guys are just wonderfully masculine and desirable. (To be fair, I suspect much of this is Heinlein bumping up against the limits of what his editors would allow -- but there's something going on with those dumb men and their smart forelock-tugging sex kittens.)

f) Heinlein himself had the amazing ability to turn his opinion on a subject from A to Not-A like a switch, as necessary, without ever, at any point, entertaining any doubts about that opinion, any related opinion, or any of his other views on the world. This really popped out at me in Expanded Universe, where he spends one essay explaining how nuclear weapons (once they are invented) will have to -- have to -- be controlled by a world-wide super-governmental agency with extraordinary powers, because otherwise the world would inevitably be destroyed by radioactive dust bombs. The next essay is about how the UN, or any extra-national agency, cannot be allowed to dictate any US policy of any kind, especially those relating to nuclear weapons, and that we should bomb flat anyone who suggest otherwise.

g) Heinlein (or his characters, be fair) was very fond of violence, particularly sudden death, as the solution to problems. Murder often seems to be a minor offense in his works, much less important than such high crimes as annoying the protagonist or proposing a solution to a problem that Heinlein or his characters oppose. (Again, to be fair, there's a lot more talking about how such people are or should be killed than actual assassinations, so this could just be a wish.)

h) If I had a dollar for every time Heinlein, or one of his characters, wrote or said that something "has to -- has to" happen, due to rules of the universe known only to that person and fuzzily alluded to, I would never have to work again.

I'm not sure how people will follow this up, but I'm sure it will be interesting...just had to get that off my chest.

(This is, in part, from the frustration I felt from starting Glory Road being very happy with the narrator's voice and settling in for a fun adventure romp, and then having Em-bloody-press Star of the Twenty-damn-Galaxies chatter on endless through most of the book without ever explaining how things actually work or ever giving that poor stupid schmoe a straight answer on anything. Of course, he also misunderstood the few things she did tell him, so she might have just given up on him.)

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Reading Into the Past: Week of 12/11

This week, the dice show 9, so we head back to the fabled year 1996 (and that means I have to dig out the old reading notebook)...
  • Anthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds (12/4)
  • Evelyn Waugh, Work Suspended and Other Stories (12/5)
  • Melanie Rawn, The Mageborn Traitor (12/7)
  • Charles Sheffield, Convergence (12/8)
  • Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (12/9)
  • Tony Kornheiser, Pumping Irony (12/10)
  • E. Nesbit, Five Children and It (12/11)
And that was the beginning of a book-a-day streak that ran through 2/8/97 -- I really did read a lot more in those days. (Though there were 26 comics collections and art books in that streak, so it's not as impressive as it may look.)

I apparently had been reading The Eustace Diamonds since about November 22, but I don't really remember which Trollope novel it was, now. (Though I do think I need to find time to read another one soon; probably He Knew He Was Right.) I was on a two or three Trollope-a-year clip then, but kids and having Internet access at home have put the kibosh on that, as they have on so many other pieces of my reading life.

I remember things about Work Suspended, but not the story itself; that was the book Waugh started writing soon after the war, and had a breakdown soon afterward (as fictionalized in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold). It's minor Waugh, but that was near the end of my Waugh kick, so it was what was left. There are some other stories in the book, but damned if I know now what they were. (I replaced this with a spiffy new The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh a couple of years ago, but haven't managed to crack the latter yet.)

The Mageborn Traitor was the second book on Rawn's famously still-unfinished trilogy, which I enjoyed well-enough at the time. (Though the social set-up of the first book had a little too much simple gender-role-inversion for my taste; it felt like she hadn't thought things through completely.)

Convergence has disappeared entirely; I think it involved a trip to another arm of the galaxy, and I'm sure it was the fourth book in a series I hadn't previously read, but that's about all left in that cubbyhole of my head.

That was the first time I read Three Men in a Boat; I think I've poked through it several times since, and read it all the way through at least once more. (Everybody should.)

I think that Pumping Irony was some sort of Iron John parody, or response, or something like that. It otherwise rings no bells.

And Five Children and It was the one and only Nesbit book I ever read; it didn't impress me. Maybe it was because I was already 27 when I read it, but it struck me as stodgy, dull, plodding and terminally didactic.

Quote of the Week

I forgot to post this before I ran off to Philcon, but here we are (two days late):

"One of the annoying things about believing in free will and individual responsibility is the difficulty of finding someone to blame your problems on. And when you do find somebody, it's remarkable how often his picture turns up on your driver's license."
-P.J. O'Rourke

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Incoming Books: Week of December 8

I probably dragged other books home recently that I forgot to mention here, but the list of what I added to the pile this week, that I can remember, is:
  • Off Ramp by Hank Stuever
  • Classic Feynman by Richard P. Feynman, edited by Ralph Leighton
  • The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford
  • Avengers: The Ultimate Guide by Tom DeFalco
The last is mostly to keep up with the club's comics/media tie-in "Altiverse" program, which is run by another editor. I try to read the comics and comics-related stuff, and at least glance at the novels.

Just Read: The Blue Suit by Richard Rayner

This is a book which was on my "look for" list for probably a decade, since it was originally published in 1995. (I bet I saw a good review in Publishers Weekly and wrote it down then; I did that a lot in those days.) I finally got a copy last month, a cheap ex-library hardcover, and now I've read it.

Short review: it really wasn't worth waiting a decade for.

Longer review: it's a perfectly serviceable minor memoir, quite well written, about a British young man in the mid-'70s who drifted into minor (solo) crime, possibly because of his father (who had embezzled a minor fortune two decades earlier). Rayner actually doesn't have a whole lot of story to tell: there are no major events, for good or bad, so he wanders aimlessly into minor house-breaking, and then wanders back out again.

The title doesn't have much to do with anything; Rayner's one suit at the time was blue, but he only mentions it a couple of times, and doesn't tie it into his thievery. He also doesn't draw any strong parallels between his father's crimes and his own; a bit of research about his father's life and crimes (and perhaps a parallel plot) could have served this book well. As it is, it reads like the kind of memoir written to get something off of the writer's chest; that's good for him, but it's not sufficient reason to get published.

It's a mostly unstructured book; Rayner runs through this period of his life chronologically but that's the only thread that organizes the book. He doesn't dig enough into his own feelings for his father, nor does he really examine his own motives; I get the feeling that he still doesn't understand the young man he was. The sentences and paragraphs are all well-formed and interesting, but the story they tell doesn't, in the end, go much of anywhere. Rayner was a thief, and then he stopped. Good for him, but not for the book.

After this past decade's flood of memoirs, there's no particular reason for anyone to search out this one. The North Central Regional Library (Headquarters: Wenatchee, WA) was justified in purging this from their holdings.

C.R. Canned In Pooh-Bear Layoff

I'm not sure if Christopher Milne is rolling in his grave or finally happy (since he was never quite at ease being "Christopher Robin" once he grew up), but he's being bumped from the world of Winnie-the-Pooh.

USA Today has the full story.

My cynical side insists that I point out that the Winnie-the-Pooh brand has been very popular with girls for the last decade or so (up to tweens), and so this looks to me like a way to strengthen that identity. Though making the new character six will not help with the upper end of that age range...

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Advertising Watch 2

Gather 'round, children. I'm going to tell you the story of The Laziest Ad Campaign in the World.

I haven't found any scans of the hideous display ads currently infesting New York (besides the stupidities I'm about to slam, they're also an ugly purple hue), but you can see a black & white ad here, on page 39 of the 11/16/05 Palo Alto Weekly. (We live in a weird world, I'll admit it.) There might be better scans of these ads somewhere on the web, but I haven't found them. (The same company's TV commercials are here, but I haven't watched them.)

So let me set the scene:

The company is Ameriprise.

The product is financial planning.

The slogan is "A generation as unique as this needs a new generation of personal financial planning."

The tone is so condescending I can taste it from five blocks away from a payphone ad.

The display and print ads feature baby boomers (Oh, did you think this could have been targeted at anyone other than boomers? Pshaw, I say. And also Feh.) doing such amazing, fantastic, uniquely baby-boomerish things as...

being Cub Scouts and cheerleaders!

wearing clothing that now looks silly!

engaging in recreational pharmaceuticals!

posing for yearbook photos and holiday snaps!

I must admit that, looking at these ads around New York for the last several months, I have come to the conclusion that boomers are indeed unique -- they're uniquely moronic if they fall for this horrible, pandering drivel.

I don't know who did this campaign, or how close to 5 PM on the Friday before a long weekend he came up with this idea, but I do know one thing: whatever Ameriprise paid for this campaign, it was too much. Uniquely too much, even.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Dice-Rolling Lego!

Every so often, my headlines sound like something Zippy the Pinhead would scream repeatedly. (And that's a good thing.)

Dice-Rolling Lego!
Dice-Rolling Lego!
Dice-Rolling Lego!

Continuing the slide of Antick Musings into a Lego/Gaming blog, let me show you the wonder that is the Dice Generator!

I don't need one; I don't even want one. I couldn't begin to program or build it (well, the Lego end I probably could). But I'm happier just knowing I live in a world where it exists.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Special 100th Post Extravaganza!

In honor of this blog's 100th post, I was planning to have a guest host, dancing girls, a talking elephant, free ice cream and champagne, fabulous prizes for the entire studio audience, a double-length episode and a special guest from our first season. Then I remembered that I'm not a TV show, which is the kind of thing I do need to remind myself of regularly.

But, since this is the 100th post, I did want to do something special. So, following the iron law of the Internet that everything, especially blogs, becomes more and more political (and acrimonious) as it goes along, I will present my favorite political joke:

It was the middle of the Depression, and a young man had left his family's farm to look for work in the big city. He stood by the side of the highway with his thumb out, hoping to get a ride.

A big red sedan stopped next to him, and a fat man in a suit asked him, "Son, are you a Democrat or a Republican"?

"A Democrat!" the boy said proudly.

And the car drove away in a burst of gravel.

A few minutes later, another car stops, this time an old green Ford driven by a little old lady. She points her round glasses at the young man and asks, "You a Republican or a Democrat?"

"I'm a Democrat, ma'am," replies our polite hero.

And she drives off just as quickly as the fat man did.

Now, this happens several more times, until our young man decides that maybe it's time to switch his political allegiance, just to get somewhere. So, when a cream-colored roadster pulls up, driven by a gorgeous blonde, he's ready with his new answer.

"Did you vote for Roosevelt?" the blonde asks him.

"No way!" he replies. "I'm a Republican!"

"Well, climb in," the blonde tells him, and he scrambles into the passenger seat, dropping his battered cardboard suitcase behind him.

The blonde pulls out, and hits the gas. The wind blows her hair out behind her face as the car picks up speed, and her thin blouse settles back further on her shoulders, drawing the boy's eye to her cleavage. She moves her legs to shift, and her skirt starts sliding up her long, gorgeous legs.

The boy swallows hard, then shouts: "Stop the car! Let me out! I've only been a Republican five minutes and I already want to screw someone!"

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Reading Into the Past: Week of 12/4

While the machine is spinning up, let me roll the very high-tech randomization devices...we have a 5, which means we travel back to the year 2000:

China Mieville, Perdido Street Station (11/26)
Cathy & Arnie Fenner, editors, Spectrum 7 (11/27)
Frank Miller,, Daredevil Visionaries: Frank Miller, Vol.1 (11/28)
Jonathan Coe, The House of Sleep (11/29)
The Art of Rowena (11/30)
David Gelernter, 1939: The Lost World of the Fair (12/1)
Tony Daniel, Metaplanetary (12/3)
Linda Nagata, Limit of Vision (12/4)

It was five years ago that I read 1939?! I thought I just read that last year! (I was vaguely looking for it for several years, and then it sat around six months before I finally go to read it, though.) Time is moving far too quickly. The book itself just has a mushy existence in my head, but I remember enjoying it, and going on to read Gelernter's book on the Unabomber because of it.

I still remember Perdido fondly, though I think The Scar is a better novel in all of the important ways. The two art books were fine for what they were, and the Frank Miller Daredevil collection was, as I recall, his getting-pretty-good first half-year, rather than the really-damn-good stuff of his end of the run.

Metaplanetary was a bit muddled and opaque, and didn't really end, but it was a decent, if really bizarre, space opera. I never got to the second one, and then Daniel didn't have a chance to do a third one.

Limit of Vision was about tiny symbiotic something-or-others, created on an orbital and smuggled down to Vietnam (semi-crash-landed, as I recall) for now-forgotten political reasons. I remember thinking it was perfectly OK, but I didn't like it as much as some of Nagata's earlier books.

And The House of Sleep was a neat British literary novel with a whole bunch of characters I now don't remember clearly. It did lead me to read Coe's first novel, the supposedly satiric The Winshaw Legacy (which I think I would have needed to have been much, much more British to "get"). I also have the first of his current two-book series around here somewhere, but haven't gotten to it yet.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Origins of SF

Since the "defining SF and fantasy meme" is running rampant this weekend, and since the "Advertising Watch" post I wanted to write has been stymied by the fact that I can't find the thing I want to complain about online, and since I still want to post at least once a day, please find below some scribblings originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written 9/7/02, slightly cleaned up and with something like a conclusion added:

My theory is that "science fiction" (the thing that, as Damon Knight put it, we're pointing at) was invented by Hugo Gernsback in the '20s. He assembled it from pieces cobbled together from existing parts of literature (especially the scientific romance) and from journalistic science non-fiction (hence the hallowed Infodump), but he did set out to build something specific and I believe that he did succeed.

Now, mind you, much that can be called "science fiction" (or, even more widely, "speculative fiction") does not have the same origin. British writers in general are less influenced by Gernsback and his tradition, for example, and the non-Anglophone parts of the world have even stranger relationships to this specific tradition.

But I do think a reasonable distinction can be drawn between "everything that has fantastic elements" and "things that know they're Gernsback's descendants, and act or react in specific ways." The latter is reasonably definable; the former isn't. And, if you want to talk about the history of "science fiction," it's best to start with Gernsback (though you probably need to work backwards as well as forwards -- precursors are very important, even if they're not within the main tradition).

But every fantastic voyage does not necessarily have anything to do with modern SF -- Lucian of Samosata and his buddies (I think) get dragged into a lot of "origins of SF" discussions to perk up the pedigree and keep the pulpy genre roots under the carpet.

I've said elsewhere that "science fiction" really means two things -- first is the larger set of stories that can profitably be read as science fiction, which contain some measure of speculation, or consideration of alternative world-possibilities, whatever their source; and second is the specific Anglo-American marketing category that generally ends up putting little rocket ships on the spines of books. What Gernsback invented was the latter; the former would have existed, in one form or another, to a lesser or greater degree, anyway. But the mere existence of the Gernsbackian marketing category alters those works in the larger category as well, since even if the writers of those books aren't aware of the ways of genre SF, at least some of their readers are.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Incoming Comics: 2 December

The actual old-fashioned comic-pamphlet-type things are very few these days, and mostly for Thing 1 (though I always read Teen Titans Go! first), but they were:
  • Teen Titans Go! #25
  • Sonic X #3
  • Sonic the Hedgehog #156
  • Keif Llama: Xenotech #2
What I mostly get these days is actual book-shaped objects with lots of pictures, viz:
  • Grimjack: Killer Instinct by Ostrander and Truman
  • The Legend off Grimjack, Vol.4, also by Ostrander and Truman
  • I Can't Believe It's Not the Justice League by Giffen and his un-indicted co-conspirators
    Yes, I know that at least half of these characters are dead in the "real" DC universe, and the others are probably heroin addicts, or newly grim 'n gritty, or something else silly. I don't care. I don't read any mainstream superhero books anyway, so I don't care what happens in them. I'll pick up an occasional odd thing, but it does need to actually be odd.
  • Kane, Vol.5: The Untouchable Rico Costas and Other Short Stories by Paul Grist
  • Go, Dork, Go! by John Kovalic
  • Samurai Executioner, Vol.6: Shinko the Kappa by Koike and Kojima
  • and Teen Titans: Jam Packed Action Vol.1, which will be a surprise for Thing 1 one of these days (so it's a good thing that he doesn't even know what a blog is yet, let alone that his Daddy does one).
I notice that when I only got to the comics store once a month, I spend way too much. On the other hand, if I went twice a month, I'd probably spend something north of (way too much)/2 each time, so the solution is non-obvious.

Quotes of the Week

Since I went to the comics shop today, I thought I'd use two of my favorite comics quotes:

"Crime is a disease, and we're a pink, chalky-tasting medicine."
--Sam & Max, Freelance Police

"Success taps softly on the back door in the middle of the night...never rings the bell...disaster comes through the living room picture window with headlights on and SIRENS blaring!"
--Flaming Carrot (in Cerebus #104)

Worrying That Bone

All of this fantasy-SF stuff is making me think about the topic much more than I want to.

But I did want to put one bit down, before it flies out of my head again: fantasy is generally about finding one's place in the world, while SF is generally about making one's place in the world. It's a subtle difference, but an important one.

The Genre Definition Wars Re-Ignite

I've just typed a couple of (probably rather dull) paragraphs about this for the SFBC blog that doesn't exist yet. (It's a word file on my work computer at the moment, though it is now twenty-two pages long. It had better turn into something real soon, or I will be forced to take extreme measures.) So I don't really feel like repeating myself, though I do think that, on the Internet as in SF, everything should be linked to everything else.

Luckily, SF Signal has a useful round-up of the state of play as of this morning.

I think Vandermeer is overlooking the fact that Chiang is talking about tendencies (and, much more importantly, fiction rather than real life), but I have to love those Socratic Dialogues with an Evil Monkey. They make me want to read more of his fiction, which I guess is the real point of a writer's blog anyway.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Other Books Read in November

I hope to do this at the beginning of each month: round up the other things I read over the past month and comment on them or not. I was going to give the dates I finished each book, but no one but me could possibly care, and I already have that written down in my notebook. It is in chronological order, though.
  • Walter Jon Williams, Incarnation Day
    This is a cheat; it's a novella (probably a novelette, actually). But I did read it as a stand-alone thing, since it fell out of the anthology it was written for and was available for a similar SFBC anthology. (I'm not sure what the status is right now, so I'm being very vague.)
  • C.J. and Erica Henderson, Baby's First Mythos
    A Lovecraftian children's book I found at WFC. It's not quite as funny as it thinks it is (and some of the rhymes don't really work), but it is a major hoot. It was actually shorter than the previous entry, but has already been published as a book all its own, for what that's worth.
  • Jim Butcher, Summer Knight
  • Gahan Wilson, The Man in the Cannibal Pot
  • George Booth, Think Good Thoughts About a Pussycat
  • Jim Butcher, Death Masks
  • Cathy and Arnie Fenner, editors, Spectrum 12: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art
    It's always been a wonderful annual, but it's even better in the slightly larger format they went to with last year's edition.
  • Jim Butcher, Blood Rites
  • Gideon Haigh, The Uncyclopedia
  • Bob Fingerman, You Deserved It
    A short collection of minor comics by the guy who did the excellent graphic novel Beg the Question, and (I'm beginning to think) nothing else really good at all. Maybe he's working on something major now; I hope so.
  • Karen Traviss, Star Wars: Republic Commando: Hard Contact
  • Laurell K. Hamilton, Micah
  • Matt Howarth, Keif Llama: Particle Dreams
  • Greg Bear, Quantico
  • Playboy Helmut Newton
  • Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, Samurai Executioner, Volume 5: Ten Fingers, One Life