Friday, July 31, 2009

The Christopher Warbot

This is a picture scanned from a mediocre sci-fi anthology called Body Armor 2000. The best part of the collection is that it reprints, with the original art, a future-history essay on the evolution of manned Warbots from an old issue of Galaxy magazine.

What I love most about this, other than the fact that it is cool and predates things like Japanese mecha and Battletech by at least a decade, is that I tracked down the reprint with no more than the memory that there had been an essay with Warbots in the title published sometime in the 1960s in Galaxy magazine.

And thus scratched a serious nostalgia itch. When I was a kid, I used to walk to the library, more than half an hour away, and just sit and read through the science fiction magazines (and the sci-fi strips in the collected Sunday comics) in the air conditioned comfort. This is a big reason why I like libraries so much today.

The Tortoise and the Hare, Blog-Style

I was looking at my posting numbers so far this year and I was feeling pretty good. I wanted to try to average 10 posts a month and crack 100 for the year. I'm doing a little better than that overall thanks to having no work in February, but more significantly I've now hit double-digit posts for four consecutive months, which is good. And I seem to be setting up a pattern of sorts for the things I blog about, with more reviews sneaking their way in as was my original intent.

Not sure why I care about this, but I think it falls into the general category of practicing my writing and trying to set and meet writing-related goals.

Anyway, I popped over to my friend Aaron's blog, Anecdotal Evidence, only to see that he has 248 posts (and counting) this year. Or close to triple my output.

I was dazed and awed. Then I thought: if we compare word count for our blog posts for the year, it's probably pretty even. I might even be ahead.

Not that I'm competitive or anything.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Review: Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008

I stumbled across this book at the library and quite enjoyed it.

As the title suggests, it's a collection of nonfiction essays culled from various magazines such as Wired, Discover, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, National Geographic, and so forth. As these sources may indicate, most of the essays are not very hard science, but they aren't fluff pieces either. Instead, they are good examples of writing on interesting and often complicated topics aimed at the layperson.

The essays range from efforts to decipher the lost knot-writing system of the Inca to understanding what an unusually limited language says about the human brain and the minds of the isolated Amazonian tribe that speaks it.

There's an examination of the origins of altruism, an assault on the misguided nature and benefits of multitasking, and a proposal to reintroduce megafauna to North America after indigenous peoples wiped out all the big animals millenia ago.

You've got a warning against the potential perils of biological contamination via untested and completely new nanomaterials, a look at the robots that will dominate the battlefields of the future, and a not so brave new world of online vigilantes hunting down scammers in virtual fashion and humiliating them in very real fashion.

That's just the tip of the iceberg. The collection is very affordable on Amazon and is now on my wishlist. I ordered a used copy of the 2005 edition and plan to pick up more of these volumes in the future.

I would write more, but I already returned my copy to the library (doh!) and can't be as specific. Might want to check the Amazon reviews.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Review: Soldier of Sidon

Every year or two I come across a Gene Wolfe novel or collection of short stories that I haven't tried to read before and give it a shot. I say "tried to read" because my success rate at finishing Gene Wolfe's long fiction is pretty poor, well under 50 percent.

I keep trying because a lot of writers whose work I do enjoy seem to hold Gene Wolfe in awe. Check out his Wikipedia entry. The guy has oodles of respect from the speculative fiction writing community and is one of the writers who has earned praise from outside the genre walls as well.

So I saw Soldier of Sidon sitting on a bookshelf in the library. This book won the 2007 World Fantasy Award. I recalled finishing an earlier book telling the story of the same main character, Lucius or Latro, called Soldier in the Mist. Soldier of Sidon wasn't too long, so I gave it a shot.

On the bright side, I finished the novel and it didn't take me terribly long to do so. Unfortunately, I found myself puzzled as always by the Wolfe conventions of a random, meandering plot, an exotic setting where more is hinted at that explained, and an unreliable narrator to guide the reader through.

Here's my metaphor for reading a typical Gene Wolfe novel. Imagine that you go to a party and everyone there is marveling at a new chair in the living room. They call it a masterpiece. You examine the chair closely. You admire the quality and the grain of the wood that was chosen and the craftsmanship with which it was made. Clearly every joint and curve was carefully worked out to produce the final result. You have to agree that it took talent to make this chair.

And you have no idea how you are supposed to sit comfortably in it. Or really sit in it at all.

Soldier of Sidon is about Latro, a warrior cursed to forget the majority of what happened the day before every time he goes to sleep and wakes up. The story is told entirely through the device of a papyrus scroll (the longest in history, apparently, or else Latro is writing in microfiche--but hey, that's a quibble) on which Latro records the events of each day as best he can.

Latro keeps asking the same people the same questions over and over again throughout the novel, not always getting the same answer. Latro also has a special gift for seeing the supernatural where others cannot--he sees gods and spirits moving around in the world and does not realize most of the time that no one else can see them. He is clearly a protagonist with a Destiny.

But I have no real idea what his Destiny might be, and neither does he. He just wanders along through Ancient Egypt and the Nile Valley, where everything is described using the terms of the day, so it is very hard to follow the geography or languages or place names provided. (There is a helpful glossary at the end of the book.) He needs to recover a shield for some purpose that we're never told and has to deal with the interference and assistance of various gods, some of whom are identified and some of whom aren't. Their motivations are never really clear, usually because we're simply not offered any motivations, but in some cases because contradictory explanations are offered.

Those explanations that are offered, such as the desires of the magical woman made of wax who appears partway through the story, are told again and again and again as Latro interacts with these people.

The descriptions of Ancient Egypt are interesting for the most part. The dialogue is sometimes crisp and sometimes confusing. It never transports me the way good dialogue by Michael Chabon or Guy Gavriel Kay can. The plot never makes much sense, though it winds around a great deal. The characters are mostly surfaces that reflect their intentions and motivations poorly.

There's a great line very late in the book where Latro writes, "Nothing could be more useless than continuing this scroll." I wonder if the irony was intentional. Had I come across that line halfway through the book, I might have just agreed with it and stopped.

All in all, it's not a book I could rate as more than mediocre. It feels like it ignores some of the most basic principles of storytelling and communicating with the reader. But all of Wolfe's long fiction reads like this to me, so I clearly just don't appreciate his style.

(As an aside, this is the sort of problem that makes me so skeptical of the arguments to be found in places like this post on Adam Roberts' blog and its comments. Arguments such as "the very heart’s-blood of literature is to draw people out of their comfort zone; to challenge and stimulate them, to wake and shake them; to present them with the new, and the unnerving, and the mind-blowing." and "No, Kevin, it is possible to distinguish good writing from bad without being elite. It's just something that most fans never bother to or want to learn how to do. Some good books are popular, some not."

If I can't follow the story and don't care about the characters, it matters not a whit to me how new or challenging it might be in a literary sense. Bewilderment is not the same as wonder.

All I can say is that normally when I read something that strikes me as a work of genius, I find myself wishing that I could write that way myself, or trying to figure out how to learn something from the example. However much I can recognize his technical skills, I never really feel that way about Wolfe. He's writing novels whose ultimate purpose I can't really fathom and have no interest in trying to emulate.

Postscript: I want to look through some more of his short fiction to see if this problem persists in that format: it has in the last couple stories of his that I have read in anthologies.

Second Postscript: I was recently reading through part of
A History of Warfare by John Keegan and noted that his description of the military situation of Ancient Egypt completely contradicts what Wolfe describes here. Wolfe refers to a kingdom that is all borders, surrounded by enemies. Keegan notes that the most significant feature of Egypt's borders was that nobody could approach from the east or the west and that the terrain of the delta also limited assaults from the north. If you could seal the northern and southern entrances to the Nile river valley, you could protect Egypt, and the Egyptians barely developed their military technology for centuries as a result. So essentially the exact opposite of what Wolfe says. Given Keegan's credentials as a military historian, I put vastly more stock in his interpretation than I do Wolfe's description. Which is too bad, because that was one of the aspects that interested me.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Why Is Fantasy & Science Fiction Classified "Young Adult?"

Those of you familiar with either genre might say, "what are you talking about?"

Well, I'm specifically talking about the magazine Fantasy and Science Fiction and the fact that the main branch of my city library has put its copies of the magazine in its Young Adult section next to the graphic novels. A location where I would never have thought to look for the magazine until my daughter pulled me over there today and I simply stumbled across issues from the past couple years in a little section on the bottom shelf.

On the one hand, I'm very happy that the library now seems to carry this magazine. It happens to be one of the markets that I've been hoping to send short stories to, so I've been trying to save for a subscription. In general I've been hoping to subscribe to F & SF, Asimov's, and perhaps Analog for at least a year, to do mypart to try and sustain the market for this sort of speculative fiction.

On the other hand, I have no idea why they put the magazine in the Young Adult section, because it isn't aimed at Young Adult readers. The two issues I just checked out feature stories by authors like Thomas Disch (a classic reprint), John C. Wright, and Robert Reed, among others. I happen to be familiar with those authors and they aren't writing for a young adult audience. The magazines are not only in the Young Adult section, they're affixed with stamps labeling them as Young Adult.

That's not to say that some teens might enjoy these and other stories. I have very fond memories of sitting at the Thomas Branigan Memorial Library in Las Cruces and poring over the battered copies of Galaxy and Analog that filled a bottom shelf. But those were lumped in with the grownup books, as they should have been.

Moreover, these magazine aren't illustrated, so I think a kid in the graphic novel section who happens to pick one up will be disappointed.

I'll probably discuss this briefly with one of the librarians the next time I visit. I don't want to be a jerk, and I'm grateful that the magazines are here, but I'm a bit perplexed as to this categorization.

This did make me think about the recent flap over the Hugo nominations, in which the erstwhile critic (and sometimes writer) Adam Roberts slammed the 2009 Hugo nominees as being nearly all Young Adult selections and not representative of the best qualities of the genre. I thought Roberts was a bit condescending and arrogant in his observations, but he has something of a point (for the counterpoint, see John Scalzi, who wrote one of the nominated books that Roberts dumps on).

After years of lit teachers telling me science fiction and fantasy were juvenile genres, I had kind of hoped we were beyond this. I imagine that people who think of science fiction as a mainly Young Adult genre are thinking primarily of science fiction films, which are just action adventure with sci-fi special effects for the most part.

But the library does have a pretty good science fiction section, so I think this may just have been a mistake.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

How RPGs and Grad School Warped My Writing Process

So, I tend to spend far too much time and energy developing the settings for my stories. How do I know I'm spending too much time on this aspect of storytelling?

First, I spend more time writing about the setting than I do writing the stories set in the background that I am developing. While I can certainly see that happening at the beginning of a very lengthy project, at some point the balance has to tip away from setting toward the storytelling. Otherwise I'll just become a very proficient setting writer.

Second, I keep tweaking and modifying my setting in significant ways over time. For my Illyria fantasy setting, I've gone back and forth on several key issues, such as how magic works and the basic cosmology, over the past two or three years. I'm coming to believe rather strongly that the only way to end this constant tinkering and commit to a set of choices is to write some stories that are locked into a particular group of characteristics about things like politics, religion, magic, social structure, and so forth. Otherwise I'll just be spinning a big wheel of imagination forever, changing because I can't sit stil mentally.

Third, I end up sweating out details about aspects of the setting that I have no plans to include in my stories. Now, to a certain degree I think this is acceptable, because having a rich background in mind lends some confidence and depth to the storytelling. And if I had clear plans on how to some of these elements in the future, then they would be worth figuring out in the beginning. Might as well act as though I'm creating something that will be an ongoing success. But going too in-depth can certainly get excessive.

Why do I have this setting fetish? Thinking it over, I point to two major contributing factors: roleplaying games and my graduate studies in history.

The Game Was the Thing
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s I played a lot of roleplaying games. Not that much of the biggest kid on the block, Dungeons and Dragons, but a lot of superhero games, some science fiction, and other stuff. Moreover, I was the person in charge of running most of the superhero games. This means that I created the basic plots, the characters who would oppose the players, and fleshed out--you guessed it--the setting.

When roleplaying, I found rather quickly that spending too much time creating a plot was a waste of time, because players are so unpredictable and mischevious that they will destroy a carefully crafted plot with ease. Instead it is better to paint in broad strokes, emphasize setting and flavor, and always have challenges in mind that are tailored to the abilities of the player characters, so the players all get a chance to shine at something they are good at and enjoy. Running a roleplaying game is good storytelling experience, but it is very different from writing a novel or even a short story due to the collaborative nature.

With roleplaying games, you want a fairly broad and detailed setting to give the players a large canvas to explore. You can't confine your worldbuilding to a small corner of the setting unless you are sure you can keep the players contained there, which is easier said than done. Particularly at the teenage/early twenties age during which I was gaming.

And roleplaying game BOOKS are for the most part sets of rules bolted to detailed settings. You read enough of those books and it seeps into your idea of how you should go about constructing a fantasy or science fiction world. But it takes a lot of work to produce something like. I daresay writing a big RPG setting is as much work for one person as writing a typical mainstream novel--which is one reason why a lot of these settings are created as collaborative efforts by a small number of designers the way video games are.

History Lessons
About the time that I stopped playing roleplaying games very often, I quit my tech writing job and went to graduate school in history. When I was in school, the instructors I gravitated toward, including my master's thesis advisors, emphasized history as a means of uncovering the lives and stories of the people that society tended to overlook. The idea was to enrich our experience of history by looking at all its many different threads.

This is a very alluring idea and can lead to some very fascinating histories of popular culture, labor, minority ethnic groups, women, the working class in general, and so forth. All sorts of details and subcultures and common experiences can be uncovered.

The problem that inevitably arises with these histories comes when one tries to weave them all together into a coherent narrative. Real life is more complex and in many ways less satisfying than a good story. Sticking to certain topics can result in an effective presentation of the known facts with a style that evokes its drama and purpose. Throwing all those topics into a blender can create a mashed and hard-to-follow tale.

When I create settings, my historical background sometimes comes in handy, helping me think of inspirational events and personalities or aiding me in looking at a situation from a hopefully fresh perspective. However, that same background also feeds into my tendency to think through aspects of the setting that are not critical to the story to be told.

So I think I can trace my troubles with setting to these influences during a memorable and interesting period of my life.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Why Don't I Finish Stories?

I've been thinking about my recent struggles as a fiction writer with the goal of figuring out how to break out of some of the mental traps I construct for myself.

I have a terrible, awful time finishing long works of fiction. I've tried to write a novel twice already. I ended up with 75,000 words the first time and more than 100,000 the second time before I just gave up.

What are the problems that would-be fiction writers face? Which ones are mine?

Not Enough Ideas?
Is this really a problem for most people who want to write? In any case, it is not a problem for me. My brain is constantly buzzing and I have ideas all the time.
So this isn't a problem I struggle with.

Lack of Discipline?
In the sense of an inability to apply ass to seat and write when the only person watching is yourself.

The ironic thing is, I earn my living as a writer of nonfiction educational materials. Over the past eight years, I have established the fact that I can consistently beat deadlines and receive complimentary feedback on material ranging from elementary school science to high school literature to junior high geography to history and government at multiple levels. I have ghostwritten textbook chapters, lecture notes, test questions, review questions, and state handbooks. I have created activities, summarized content for below-level readers, and written more than one online-only course complete with links to content.

I have done all of this working mainly from my basement, with no one within the same time zone standing over my shoulder making sure I'm getting the work done. I set my schedule based in large part on whether my kids are in or out of school, when my wife is teaching, and whether my clients are working in a time zone ahead or behind my own.

In short, I feel that I have established a very tangible form of writing discipline. I can stare at the blank page or screen and just get on with it.

Lack of Confidence?
Well, this is a mixed bag. I write a fair amount of stuff that I think is pretty good. So that's not a lack of confidence. But I want to write material that is VERY good. And I'm not so sure about that, because I tend to use accomplished authors as my measuring sticks and they have much more experience with the craft.

One of my ideas for alleviating this tendency was to collect anthologies of works by authors whom I admire, with the express goal of finding early material that they wrote. Because typically that material isn't as good. I also look at the bookshelves at the stores and libraries every now and then to look for mediocre-looking books. Just to remind myself that you don't have to be brilliant to get published. And I think this has helped a bit.

So I don't think the problems above are the issue. I didn't include lack of talent because I think I'm a decent writer and plenty of people whose talent is not clearly evident get their novels published. So while I think that talent is essential to be an excellent writer, it is overrated as a prerequisite for becoming a successful writer.

There's something else going on here. Two things, in fact, if my navel-gazing has revealed any meaningful insights.

I have a pair of Achilles' heels as a Writer:
  • I get lost in the settings I create and never stop revising them.
  • I get bored easily with my own plots and so tend to overcomplicate them.
I'm going to try to unpack these weaknesses in a couple further posts.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I Have a Lot of Books

This became clear when I posted a list of the books that I own but haven't gotten around to reading all of yet. And I have many more books than that, not even counting the rpg books or the graphic novels. Probably 400 books or so including all the graphic novels and rpg books.

The funny thing is, I'm always finding new, interesting books in the library. The other funny thing is that I read almost nothing in the typical bestseller or literary fiction categories.

So I thought about it, and this is why I have so many books and haven't read a bunch of the ones I own (though I have read most of the books I own, probably 3/4 or so):
  • I'm a fairly voracious and omnivorous reader. I'm guessing that I average about a book a week (I usually have one work of fiction and one or two nonfiction books going at any given time). I would say that half of what I read is nonfiction (divided amongst science, history, and miscellaneous cultural stuff ranging from theories of magic to linguistics). The remaining half is divided between science fiction, fantasy, and mysteries,in that order of preference. I'm just curious about a lot of things.
  • If I enjoy a book a lot, I really like to own a copy of that book. If I check a book (fiction or nonfiction) out from the library three or more times to read all or part of it, then I try to acquire a copy of that book. And I like shopping for book bargains the way some people like to buy shoes. I love used books and have ever since I was a kid in Las Cruces, where places like Dave's Paperback Exchange were a little oasis of speculative fiction in a town filled with people whose imaginations didn't run in the same vein as my own. (One reason I don't yet own a copy of Clifford Geertz's Local Knowledge is that I haven't found a used copy for less than $5 and I don't feel like buying a beaten up copy for $10 or $20 for a new copy. I like the book but not that much.)
  • In a similar fashion, I reread the best fiction books in my collection every few years and refer back to sections of the best nonfiction books every year or so. Right now I'm debating when I'll get around to rereading several Guy Gavriel Kay novels and whether I'll reread a couple Sheri Tepper novels first. Anyway, this type of behavior isn't conducive to getting rid of books once I acquire them and it can delay me from reading more recently acquired books.
  • I have an odd schedule because I am a work-from-home freelancer. This means that there are stretches when I have more free time than most people because I don't have a paying job and the kids are in school. Even an extra free hour translates into a lot more reading time. But at the same time, I can't predict when I'll be free and when I'll get a contract to work on, so I sometimes get books intending to read them and then have little free time to read for the next couple months. Those books may then slip out of my awareness and gather dust on a shelf.
  • Traits a and b sometimes combine to convince me to buy cheap books without really thinking through the purchase--I see something at a book sale that intrigues me and it looks like a great deal so I grab it. I'm thinking of just avoiding the big library book sale that occurs twice a year here in Boise, because while I have found a few nice books over the years, I probably don't get around to reading the majority of the stuff I acquire.
  • I write speculative fiction and I never know what kind of resource/reference material might be useful, so I cast a wide net. I've got books on some fairly esoteric stuff because I came up with some unusual questions. Our library is good but not exhaustive by any means, so I have to buy some of these books if I want to explore their contents.
My goal with reading the stuff currently on my shelves is trying to figure out which of these books I can donate. The others I probably will read more than once.

I really need to figure out which of the guides to writing are worth keeping. Part of that involves actually doing the exercises that they suggest.

Anyway, my shelves and shelves of books are a pleasure for me for the most part, though it can be hard figuring out what to keep in the basement (where most of my shelves are) and what to keep upstairs for easier access. Every few months I get the urge to reorganize my books, which drives everyone else in the family a little crazy. Don't know why I have that impulse. I just do.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Review: True Enough

I've already talked a bit about Farhad Manjoo's nonfiction book True Enough a while back in another post. Here I'm just going to tell you that it is well worth reading and sum up a few of the key concepts:
  • selective exposure: This is the idea that people seek out and consume information that pleases them, avoiding data that contradicts our own beliefs while simultaneously surrounding ourselves with voices that reinforce our beliefs. (The increased number of specialized news channels made available by the proliferation of cable news, talk radio, and blogs has made it easier for people to indulge this behavior by simply ignoring the channels they don't like.)
  • selective perception: Individuals interpret documentary evidence through the lens of their own previously held beliefs, such that two people with opposing ideologies watching the same newscast dealing with a topic connected to those ideologies will not merely interpret what that newscast says differently, they will literally see and hear the news different, selectively editing their perceptions on an unconscious level to match their prior views. (This is most easily seen with sporting events but also occurs commonly with film footage of events like riots or wars.)
  • peripheral processing: In a world in which individuals are bombarded with more and more information every day, often involving complex concepts and/or data, people come to rely to a greater degree on the advice and opinions of experts rather than taking the time and energy to learn about topics directly. This is a problem because we don't know how to properly categorize who is an expert and who is not and are often fooled by false or inflated claims to specialized knowledge of a field because we buy into fancy titles or incorrectly assume that expertise in one area of study translates equally into mastery of even vaguely related areas. (Such as assuming that anyone with a math background can correctly analyze polling data without any special knowledge of politics or regional voting trends.)
  • hostile media phenomenon: Both liberals and conservatives perceive a bias in the news against their own point of view because they focus on the arguments and facts presented in the news that are hostile to their perspective. They remember them more strongly afterward and so are left with the impression of bias. (The classic example being people watching a political debate. Each person is likely to report that their candidate won the debate, but if asked will say that anyone watching the news coverage of the debate will think that their candidate lost due to the biased presentation of the debate by the news.)
  • video news releases: Companies produce a lot of faux-news reports, presented to look like actual news programming, and give them away for free to local television news stations. Strapped for cash and stories to fill their time slots, these stations often run these news programs without proper attribution, so the viewer has no idea that the product placements in the news stories are all forms of advertising.
  • particularized trust: As opposed to generalized trust, which describes the degree to which people are trusting of strangers, particularized trust deals with how we view people who we think are just like us.
Manjoo argues that all of these factors are exacerbated by the shift in media from a few large platforms to many small, more focused platforms. As a result, more and more people live inside their own little bubbles of truth.

In a sense, he's saying that instead of the Internet and other means of digital communication producing networks that connect people, these technologies have made it possible for many segments of society to exist in worlds that are parallel to each other, intersecting rarely if at all.

It's not a particularly happy book to read, but it is well-written and provides a lot of food for thought.

Review: Metaplanetary

Okay, I'm going to try to review the science fiction book Metaplanetary, by Tony Daniel. I say try because, to be honest, I didn't feel the need or enthusiasm to finish it. I got halfway through, decided to check out some of the reviews of the book on Amazon, was a bit startled to see how uniformly positive they were, then discovered that not only does this book apparently not have an ending that wraps things up, it's part of a trilogy that has not been completed in spite of the fact that this book was published in 2001. And the second book has a much more mixed bag of reviews.

So I felt no compelling reason to keep going.

What did I glean from the couple hundred pages of Metaplanetary that I did read? Well, Tony Daniel apparently spent a fair amount of effort figuring out the science that would allow intelligent nanotech with instantaneous communications ability and a giant set of tubes physically connecting the inner planets to exist. He goes to a lot of work to explain this to the reader, inserting a bunch of short, two-three page faux historical essays and commentaries into the novel, inevitably interrupting the flow of the narrative to do so, all with the apparent goal of explaining to us how all this weird shit came about.

Unfortunately for me, this effort was largely wasted. I didn't much care for the uber-scientist characters he created whose brilliant insights upset all we knew about physics, but that's largely moot as they are only really seen in the flashbacks. Mostly, my problem was twofold:
  1. All the scientific trappings failed to convince me that the Met, as the huge collection of tubes physically connecting the inner planets is called, made any sense whatsoever from either a physical or a social perspective. How can you connect objects moving in elliptical orbits at different speeds with giant tubes without them getting tangled? Hell, I can't keep my garden hoses from kinking and tangling and they are maybe 100 feet long at the most. Just as significantly, even if you could somehow build something as crazy as this, why the hell would you bother? What possible benefits does it offer compared to just creating a space based civilization using beanstalks and orbital platforms and asteroids bumped into closer orbits to get more energy and supply resources? It doesn't. It requires engineering on the level of a Dyson sphere or a Ringworld with none of practical benefits. The Met exists solely because Daniel thought, "This would be a cool idea and nobody has thought of it before." And I just didn't find it that cool. Might as well write a fantasy and put it in there so I don't have to constantly wonder how it actually works and how incongruous it is sitting in the middle of an setting that otherwise tries to be fairly hard science fiction. Except for:
  2. The grist was also frustrating because, unlike a high-nanotech future such as that described in Wil McCarthy's Bloom or even Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age, it didn't feel like the world inundated with grist was all that coherent. I like the name grist, but I did not see the need for adding all the extra instant communication weirdness to free-floating nanotech, which is already weird enough. Frankly, the society Daniel was describing just seemed too normal to me to have this kind of magical technology floating around. And there's this very poorly explained breakdown of human minds into a tripartite aspect: pellicle, aspect, and convert. I did not like the names or the descriptions of these elements. Aspect tells me nothing, convert made sense only after reading a review (it's some sort of algorthymic conversion of a person's mental state apparently), and pellicle was just weird. And frankly, I still have no clear idea WHY people separate into these different parts and why they are always on and interacting.
Golden Age by John C. Wright is a much more coherent and just as wild and crazy depiction of a future solar system.

So, with the setting not grabbing, me, I had to look to the characters. Eh. They were decent and the half-ferret, half-nanotechnological homunculus, half-stored mind program of a deceased human (yeah, that's too many halves, but that's about as clear as the novel gets) character was cool. But it just wasn't enough to keep me suspending my disbelief and wading through the other bits of the setting.

Addendum: Looking at the reviews of Daniel's first two novels, Warpath and Earthling, suggests that my concerns about poorly explained science and politics and a somewhat meandering plot have come up in the past. So while Metaplanetary is probably an improvement on these, showing that Daniel is progressing as a writer, there still seems to be a challenge with combining the imagination and stylistic prose with a bit more structure.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Screw, I'm done

I've been reading and posting material (not at a very high rate, for reasons that will become clear) on rpgnet for five years now, and it has consistently been the most frustrating online experience I can imagine.

Here's the thing: nobody ever replies to my posts. Ever. I will take the time to think of a reasoned reply to one post, linking to outside sources, often incorporating a response to more than one prior poster's comments, and I will get nothing.

Here was the latest sample of my efforts to communicate:
Originally Posted by Son of Kirk View Post
It's like Comment or opinion pieces in the Guardian. Bold claims and assertions are made because that's often the best way to get an article noticed.

Let's face it, an article that says '4E is alright, it has some issues and it has some good bits' just isn't going to draw as much interest as 'OMG 4E is the Reaper and our hobby is it's target!' because, facing it again, we all love a trainwreck and we all like a bit of confrontation.
"Very true. I think there's also an element of attraction to extreme blogs based on what Farhad Manjoo calls "weak dissonance"--a poorly argued viewpoint or idea that is the opposite of one we hold. Everyone likes to knock down a straw man argument, as it makes us feel better about our own views and intelligence. I suspect it is particularly satisfying when that straw man seems to be especially obnoxious.

Look at how many people have checked out Mishler's blog based on this thread. I think the degree of draw and the level of reaction (on these forums, at least) are based largely upon the ease with which people feel his arguments can be refuted in a satisfying fashion, not so much upon the idea that his blog is influencing gaming trends. (Though people have indicated that they feel too many older gamers share his views already.)

That said, all the hyperbole and histrionics in the blogosphere can certainly wear thin. I found the squareman blog entry interesting, though I am always suspicious of claims related to the "new economics" of the Internet. Chris Anderson has made a career out of preaching that everything we thought we knew about economics and commerce is now wrong, but he still has to acknowledge in his latest book that YouTube does not make money giving away its services. (And it will cost you $27 on Amazon to buy Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Apparently too radical to charge it for his own work.) Certainly there is a market for micropayments and the like, but tabletop RPGs are not quite the same thing as video games.

I eventually gave up and just skimmed the profanity-laced, teeth-gnashing silliness of RPGPundit's blog entry and read Ryan Dancey's comments at the bottom, which were much more sober and coherent. Dancey's point about paying RPG writers based on the quality of their content--say, a very good 32 page adventure--versus paying by the word was interesting. I've been a freelance writer and editor for eight years now, and I am paid by the chapter, by the component, etc., never by the word. And most contracts include a revision clause."

I thought that was a thoughtful response that added something new to the conversation. Did anyone else think so? I have no idea, because it has been ignored for three days. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Even the guy whose post I basically insulted as a childish rant couldn't be bothered to rant at me in reply.

Earlier this year a guy started up a thread about alternative technology and setting tweaks for a Star Trek universe. I had done the same thing the previous year and had fewer than 20 replies, maybe 100 views. This guy Shadowjack had some similar ideas, some different--but he added these little cartoons. I thought they were nice. He got a few HUNDRED replies and more than 2,000 hits.

I sighed, sucked up my wounded pride, and made a few comments in the spirit of the discussion. One of which involved replacing Klingons with Neanderthals (either carried offworld by mysterious Progenitors or, in an idea of mine that I particularly liked, resurrected through DNA samples to serve as soldiers during the Eugenics Wars, only to escape into space).

I did get a reply to that, from a self-styled Paleontologist who took issue with my suggestion that a Neanderthal culture might find cause to blame homo sapiens for being responsible for the extinction of Neanderthals on Earth. He said there was no evidence whatsoever that ancient humans had anything to do with the end of the Neanderthals. I replied that (a) I thought he was being kind of precious not to think that ancestral humans would not have come into conflict for resources with Neanderthals in close proximity, since we do that with every living creature we encounter and exterminate the competition [and why wouldn't early man eat Neanderthals, to be blunt? We eat other primates.]; (b) it doesn't matter if it DID happen that way, it matters if resurrected Neanderthals could reasonably be expected to THINK it happened that way; (c) Space Neanderthals are just fucking cool!

And the guy just says "whatever," everyone else ignores the post, and it's another waste of time and ideas on my part.

The ironic thing is, when I've actually contacted a number of game designers over the years, they've liked my ideas and how I described them.

So screw! I don't roleplay more than once in a blue moon anyway. I just wanted to try out the whole social networking online concept in a hobby that I thought was small enough and felt knowledgeable enough about to make a decent contribution to the conversation while educating and entertaining myself reading other people's ideas.

All it did was leave me feeling even more isolated.

I would have made this post on rpgnet, but nobody would give a crap. Or worse, they'd finally pay attention just to poke fun and be assholes.

New Reading Goal

In addition to the other books I get from the library, in particular nonfiction, I'm going to make a concerted effort to read, cover to cover, the following books that have been sitting on my shelves that I have not read or have not completed.

Here's the list, 106 at this point (I have to look at a few more of the Science Fiction Annual Collections to see if they should be added), broken out by category:

Science Fiction [32]
  • The Year's Best Science Fiction 24th Annual Collection
  • The Year's Best Science Fiction 22nd Annual Collection
  • The Year's Best Science Fiction 6th Annual Collection
  • Supermen: Tales of the Posthuman Future
  • The Space Opera Renaissance
  • Worlds that Weren't (Alternate History Anthology)
  • One Lamp (Alternate History Anthology)
  • The Earth Book of Stormgate, Poul Anderson
  • Steampunk
  • The Collected Stories of Greg Bear
  • The Forge of God, Greg Bear
  • Eon, Greg Bear
  • Eternity, Greg Bear
  • Dinosaur Summer, Greg Bear
  • Earth, David Brin
  • Shadow of the Hegemon, Orson Scott Card [sci-fi]
  • Shadow Puppets, Orson Scott Card [sci-fi]
  • Shadow of the Giant, Orson Scott Card [sci-fi]
  • Foreigner, C.J. Cherryh
  • Babel-17, Samuel R. Delany
  • Altered Carbon, Richard K. Morgan [sci-fi]
  • Signal to Noise, Eric Nylund
  • An Exhaltation of Larks, Robert Reed [sci-fi]
  • Marrow, Robert Reed [sci-fi]
  • Calculating God, Robert J. Sawyer
  • Sun of Suns, Karl Schroeder [sci-fi/fantasy]
  • A Door into Ocean, Joan Slonczewski [sci-fi]
  • The Rediscovery of Man [Complete Short Stories of Cordwainer Smith]
  • The Castaways of Tanagar, Brian Stableford
  • Singularity Sky, Charles Stross
  • The Awakeners, Sheri S. Tepper [sci-fi/fantasy]
  • The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge
Fantasy [27]
  • The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 8th Annual Collection
  • The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 9th Annual Collection
  • The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 12th Annual Collection
  • The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 15th Annual Collection
  • The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 16th Annual Collection
  • Year's Best Fantasy 1
  • Year's Best Fantasy 2
  • Year's Best Fantasy 3
  • Year's Best Fantasy 4
  • Modern Classics of Fantasy
  • Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment
  • Legends II: Dragon, Sword, and King
  • Legends II: Shadows, Gods, and Demons
  • Grave Peril, Jim Butcher
  • Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman
  • Assassin's Apprentice, Robin Hobb [fantasy]
  • Royal Assassin, Robin Hobb [fantasy]
  • Assassin's Quest, Robin Hobb [fantasy]
  • Oathbreakers, Mercedes Lackey
  • A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Leguin
  • The Tombs of Atuan, Ursula K. Leguin
  • Tales from Earthsea, Ursula K. Leguin
  • At the Mountains of Madness, H.P. Lovecraft
  • The Golden Compass, Phillip Pullman
  • The Amber Spyglass, Phillip Pullman
  • The Subtle Knife, Phillip Pullman
  • The Black Throne, Fred Saberhagen & Roger Zelazny
Mystery [6]
  • Tough Guys & Dangerous Dames (Hardboiled Mystery Anthology)
  • Mammoth Book of Great Detective Stories
  • Historical Detectives
  • Darwin's Blade, Dan Simmons [mystery/thriller]
  • Black Lotus, Laura John Rowland [historical mystery]
  • Straight, Dick Francis
"Literary" Fiction [5]
  • Best American Essays 1994
  • Best American Essays 1996
  • Best American Short Stories 1989
  • O'Henry Awards 1990
  • Fluke, Christopher Moore
Adventure/Espionage [2]
  • The Crook Factory, Dan Simmons [history/espionage]
  • Combat [anthology of near future combat stories]
Nonfiction Science [17]
  • What Are You Optimistic About?
  • What We Believe But Cannot Prove
  • What Is Your Dangerous Idea?
  • True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier, by Vernor Vinge
  • Best American Science and Nature Writing 2005
  • Empires of the Word (nonfiction linguistics)
  • Einstein for Beginners
  • The Physics of Star Trek
  • The Origin of Species
  • Science Matters
  • Technology in World Civilization
  • Engines of Creation
  • Paradigms Regained
  • How the Mind Works
  • The Society of Mind
  • The Age of Intelligent Machines
  • The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome
Nonfiction Other [8]
  • A History of Warfare (nonfiction history)
  • The Shield of Achilles (nonfiction history/government/law)
  • The Day the Universe Changed
  • The Clustered World
  • New Rules for the New Economy
  • Collapse
  • Worlds of Sense
  • What If? [alternate military history]
Writing and Creativity [9]
  • Flow
  • Plot & Structure
  • Story, Robert McKee
  • How To Write a Damn Good Novel
  • How To Write a Damn Good Novel II
  • Coaching the Artist Within
  • Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel
  • Manuscript Makeover
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
You'd think that I wouldn't find the need to buy any more books or check out any from the library with a to-read list like this one, eh? But no.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Reviews: Incomplete

Well, today I returned two different books that I was in the midst of reading. My rule of thumb is that if I read 100 pages of a book--or a significant number of the stories in an anthology--without getting hooked, then I'm done.

The novel I failed to finish was Children of Men by PD James. A very well-written book whose subject matter was just too bleak to overcome the deliberate pacing of the story and the lack of a sympathetic narrator. The premise is that all of a sudden in the late 1990s all the women in the world can no longer become pregnant. No real explanation is offered for the Omega Event and it's a tribute to the talents of James as a writer that I didn't feel frustrated by that. There is a lot of well-crafted imagery in the book, but 100 pages in I found myself unable to feel a great sense of loss at the idea that the characters or their post-Omega British society were going to die out. And that's saying something, because the narrator is a history professor. My wife teaches history at a university and I briefly studied to become a history professor, so you'd think a character in that profession would have my sympathy, but I didn't like the guy or what he was doing in his life enough to care what happened to him.

It struck me as odd that, aside from the very first scene, there was nothing 100 pages into a short novel aside from the premise that had anything to do with the movie Children of Men that I watched. I mean nothing. Not the main character, not the unwinding of the story, not the relationships between characters or the depiction of the society itself. Well, both were depressing, but the novel is depressing in a quiet, almost apologetic (why can't we make a better end of things than this) sort of way, while the film was depressing in a bleak, desperate fashion (everything is disintegrating, the center does not hold, etc.).

Maybe the two plots have more in common further on in the novel, but I just couldn't motivate myself to read it. Not because it was poorly written in terms of the crafting of sentences and images, but because the story it told did not grab me. To be fair, I've never been a big fan of post-apocalyptic tales: I saw two Mad Max movies and that scratched the itch sufficiently. So although this is a clever take on that genre, I needed something that felt like more than a collection of black and white still photos of a dying English countryside inhabited by ghosts. And I suppose I'm the type of reader that wants to reach that point before I get nearly halfway through a novel (this one was maybe 240 pages), much less 100 pages in.

The second failure to finish book was You Are Not a Stranger Here, a collection of short stories by the author Adam Haslett. The opening story, "Notes to My Biographer," is a brilliant look at the effects of age and mental illness on an individual and his son. Really fascinating. But after I got halfway through, I got weary of stories about depressed gay men, depressed people with mental illness, depressed dying gay men with a hint of mental illness, depressed young men with signs of mental illness, and so forth. Notice a theme here? Again, I think the issue here was partly that these stories would have stood out more on their own rather than collected where the similarities of theme could become so overwhelmingly depressing. Then again, the later stories in the collection might not be like this. If so, the collection needed a better editor. On a music album you don't put all the slow ballads one after the other.

I might pick up this collection again in the future and start where I left off, once some time has allowed the themes to feel fresh again. Haslett is a talented writer and it is easier to stomach unsympathetic or distant characters in the short story format as compared to the rather annoying professor of James's novel.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Creationist Museum as a Test Case

My buddy Aaron posted a recent blog entry on Anecdotal Evidence connected to John Scalzi's Whatever blog entry about going to the Creationist museum.

It's an entertaining piece if, like me, you think hardcore Creationism is a steaming pile of crap.

Scalzi's essay/rant also struck me as a good example of the appeal of what Farhad Manjoo called "weak dissonance" in his recent book True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

Basically, a number of studies conducted over the past forty years have indicated that if you have a strongly held set of beliefs on any given topic, you can encounter one of four broad sets of ideas related to that topic:
  • "strong consonance" represents well-argued and believable ideas that support your own beliefs.
  • "weak consonance" represents poorly argued, unconvincing ideas that support your own beliefs.
  • "strong dissonance" represents well-argued and believable ideas that are contrary to your own beliefs.
  • "weak dissonance" represents poorly argued, unconvincing ideas that are contrary to your own beliefs.
Now, you'd expect people to be interested in consuming strong consonance ideas, because it reinforces their existing world-views in a reassuring and convincing way. And it turns out that for both liberals and conservatives, that is the case.

And nobody really likes to seek out strong dissonance ideas, because it shakes them up. Here there's a significant divide between liberals, who show at least some willingness to glance at such ideas, and conservatives, who simply act as though such ideas don't exist.

But what's interesting is that the set of ideas that most people are most likely to embrace right after strong consonance ideas are weak dissonance ideas. Apparently everybody loves to beat up a straw man argument. This is how Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly make a living--selecting the weakest link and attacking it. And it seems to me to be just what Scalzi is doing in his piece--going after a really, really stupid set of ideas that are inherently self-contradictory.

Now, it's partly my own liberal bias that I enjoyed Scalzi and hate Limbaugh. To be fair, in the case of the Creationism Museum, when somebody goes to that sort of trouble and expense to present their half-baked ideas to the world with pride and determination, it seems to me that they are basically asking for a rhetorical ass-whipping. Scalzi does this with competent glee. In the case of people like Limbaugh, I don't even think that he's very good at making the points he wants to make. So's he just plain irritating.

I suspect that this weak dissonance model isn't that far off from how predators cull the herd; they go after the weakest members. To stretch the analogy, they go after either the oldest ideas that are showing a lack of vigor in the contemporary environment, or they go after the newest ideas that haven't had time to learn how to defend themselves from attackers.

This does make me wonder, as Scalzi does, who exactly is going to the Creationism Museum. Are they conservative True Believers, or are they merely conservatives willing to shell out the money to experience some weak consonance (as studies indicate conservatives are more likely to do than liberals). The theories would seem to suggest that there would be just as many, if not more, liberals attending the Museum to experience weak dissonance as there would be moderate conservatives going to experience weak consonance. So I think polling the demographics of the Museum's attendance over a period of time would be an interesting case study for these theories about how people choose to expose themselves to ideas in the world around them.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Family (Mis)Adventures

So, yesterday my wife and I took our two kids to the water park to celebrate my son's seventh birthday a bit after the fact. It was his first time at the big park.

(On the weekend, we had taken him to see his first movie in a theater, Monsters v. Aliens. It was at one of the local dollar theaters and he did a great job. Stayed in his seat, didn't talk through the dialogue or ask an endless stream of questions, didn't ask to go to the bathroom, etc. His only insistence was that he get some popcorn, because "I know from watching movies at home that people in movie theaters always have popcorn.")

He did a great job, enjoying the large wave pool in particular, going back multiple times. Dad, who isn't quite as big a fan of waterparks as his wife or daughter, did okay outside of the big tube rides. Waiting in line a long time for a ride that ends up being over in a flash just isn't my thing. Maybe it reminds me too much of my early sex life, I don't know.

And naturally at the exit of a ride called the Viper, I ended up coming out of the chute backwards and flipped upside down, smacking my head on the concrete floor of the shallow exit pool hard enough to raise a lump, give me a headache, and make me dizzy--but thankfully not enough to cut my scalp or result in a concussion. I also somehow managed to cut my foot. The next hour or so was not so fun-filled for me, but the kids continued to have a good time.

So, all things considered, I took one for the team and my son had a great time.

That night my daughter was helping her mom prepare dinner when she sliced off part of her fingernail while peeling some ginger. Finger bleed a lot, so there was a bit of trauma as that got squared away with gauze and bandaids.

Then this afternoon my son came screaming into the house. At first I literally thought he had severed an artery or set himself on fire. Turned out it was his first bee sting, on the bottom of his foot. He shrieked in my ear for a good two minutes straight (Ow! OWW! AHHH! OWWW!) as I sat him in a chair and my wife brought me the tweezers to pull the stinger out. Then he howled a bit more when she put the baking soda on the sting, and I put some ice on the sting to calm him down.

This evening he said at dinner, "I can't even remember what the sting felt like."

It has been an adventurous couple of days. Hopefully we will all heal up. :-)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Review: Small Favor

My latest Dresden Files read is the recent novel Small Favor. This one finds Harry unwillingly called upon to pay off one of his debts to the Winter Queen Mab, acting as her Emissary to retrieve the kidnapped gangster Marcone--one of the longest running characters in the series and someone for whom Harry has grudging respect but no real love.

But, in what has become increasingly common in the later novels of the series, the supposed premise isn't really what the novel ends up being about. It's much more about the Knights of the Cross, the demonic Denarians, and the Archive, as well as Harry's relationships with all three. Sure, an unnatural winter hangs over Chicago during the course of the story, and Marcone's henchmen and his special Valkyrie-like bodyguard play a role. But we're mainly dealing with recurring themes of faith, temptation, and the personal challenges of trying to maintain friendships and especially trust when all around you are powers that can warp human minds to their will.

In particular, there are some interesting twists with relationships. There's a hint of a sort of pseudo-family composed of certain characters being a possibility for the future, and it's surprising. There's also a new love interest for Harry--not a new character, actually, but a new (and to me unexpected) perspective on an old one.

As usual, there are a few elements to the plot that are a bit convenient. Not unbelievable, per se, but the bad guys could not have realistically anticipated that certain actions of theirs would lead to the outcomes that they do when they set their plans in motion, yet some of their plans seem predicated on these unpredictable outcomes taking place. But as usual the pacing of the action is fast enough, the humor reliable enough, and the sense of concern for interesting and likable characters palpable enough to keep you reading until late in the night without worrying too much over occasional dramatic conveniences.

Now I think I'm going to take a break before reading the latest book in the series, as this is the third or fourth Dresden novel I've devoured in the last month.