Thursday, May 31, 2012

Unspeak

A dear friend of mine pointed me at the Unspeak blog, which is all about language, and particularly the ways it is used by politicians and the media. Check it out and enjoy yourselves!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Perils of Classification

So, one of the podcasts I'm working my way through is Adventures in SciFi Publishing, and in an episode I listened to recently (I think it's still several years old) they were talking about why Fantasy outsells Science Fiction. As their example, they gave the Lord of the Rings as the best selling fantasy work of all time, weighing in at 150 million copies sold. For the best selling science fiction novel, they gave Dune at a modest 12 million copies.

And my immediate thought was "Dune? Really?"

Here's the thing (this information is coming from Wikipedia):

Dune sold 12 million copies.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory sold 13 million.

But, okay, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory doesn't really have science, even if it does have monsters and weird cultures and fantastically advanced machinery. The "science" is mostly magic anyway, and it's not really integral so much as a set piece and plot convenience. And it's for kids anyway?

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy sold 14 million.

Okay, I mean, sure, it's in space and all, and there are aliens and robots. And it includes both the origin story for the world and the end of the universe. But it doesn't count because it's funny... I guess?

Nineteen Eighty-Four sold 25 million copies, more than twice Dune.

Surely when people think science fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four comes to mind? I grant you it's not hard science heavy, but this thing is like the patriarch of dystopias.

Here's the big one though. There are two books that have officially outsold Lord of the Rings.

The first, and best seller of all time, is Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. The second is a story about a  travelling alien resident of an asteroid who comes to earth to see the world from an outsider perspective, and to discover profound truths about life: Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry's Le Petit Prince (200 million copies, which, if you're keeping score, is Lord of the Rings plus four Dunes and some change).

Now, that's a children's book, and not per se full of what you would call science, but I'll contend if you line it up next to Doctor Who it's not out of the ballpark. Putting the word "quantum" in front of something doesn't actually make it scientific.

I think part of the problem with BOTH science fiction and fantasy is that they've evolved these really weird distinctions about what's really science fiction or what's really fantasy- borders that are fiercely defended by the more vociferous fans out there, as I'm sure any Urban Fantasy reader will tell you. Nevermind fans of Twilight. And they're not really consistent. Why WOULD you count Dune but not Nineteen Eighty-Four? Why is Star Wars science fiction? Why is John Carter of Mars? Why ISN'T Atlas Shrugged (a book which, mind you, is set in the future, deals with the outcome of societal decay, and has material stronger than steel, a cloaking device capable of hiding a whole valley, a sonic death ray, and an engine that produces limitless free energy, all as major points of the novel)?

The explanations actually given for why Science Fiction (undefined) sold more poorly than Fantasy (also undefined) despite the individual performance of some books were:

1. The market permeation of Lord of the Rings and a desire left in its readers for more books of similar scope and subject (which I think is a fair and excellent point, and demonstrable in authors like Terry Brooks and Christopher Paolini).
2. The science itself is a hurdle many readers either can't or don't care to overcome (this one gets a meh from me, because there's such a wide range in science fiction- there's a lot of it where attention to scientific detail actually hurts you)
3. More women read than men, and women have traditionally preferred fantasy (reasons given for this were the boys own adventure quality of a lot of scifi, the greater representation of strong females in fantasy, the science is hard argument above (grr), and the kind of insular and off-putting elitism found in some of the science fiction fandom).
4. They also kind of flirted with the idea that fantasy tends to be more character-oriented and science fiction tends to be more idea-oriented.

One thing they didn't mention, but which I hope they do as the discussion goes on, is that a lot of the fantasy on the best seller list here is kid friendly. Some of it is out and out FOR kids, but most of it is stuff that both kids and adults can read (Little Prince, Lord of the Rings, Hobbit, Narnia (okay, that one's iffy), Harry Potter, to name a few). Cutting out either kids or adults reduces your audience pool, and let's be honest, if there's any one group that's at a disadvantage, generally, for understanding (or sitting patiently through the explanation of) the science, it's young kids.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

History and Alternate History Folk, Have I Got A Thing For You!

WhoWhatWhen is a great little java toy, into which you can input either a person or a year, and it will display a timeline of famous contemporaries, events that went on within that time, wars, inventions, disasters, and major social and artistic movements. Don't say I never gave you anything. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

World SF Blog

Check out the World SF Blog! They do science fiction from around the world. Plus sometimes they post fiction. 

Oldest and Fatherless

This one's just a bit of fun, fannish fluff, but it's a different take on Tolkien's Tom Bombadil. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Men's Fiction

Esquire announced its intent to publish straight to e-book anthologies of "Men's Fiction", and I am cautiously optimistic.

I'm actually really for publishing "Men's Fiction" and labeling it as such. The editor hopes for stories "dealing with passages in a man’s life that seem common," which I think is a fantastic thing to do. Let's talk about boys being expected to fight. Let's talk about the draft. Let's talk about fatherhood. Let's talk about not knowing for sure if a sexual partner's offspring is also yours. Let's talk about the expectation of being the breadwinner, or the directionless feeling when that's no longer expected and one doesn't know exactly what is. Let's talk about being expected to be physically strong in the way women are expected to be physically beautiful. Let's talk about the intersections of masculinity and race in our society. All of these are valuable and important and potentially great stories that are generally pretty specific to men.

I think one fantastic thing about directing attention to the idea that there is specifically masculine fiction is that it helps put wedge between masculine fiction and general fiction being masculine by default. I like the idea of there being a gender continuum with delineated poles and a broad neutral ground in the middle where the subject isn't anything gender-particular, but rather the human condition. Not "women's fiction and general fiction", but "women's fiction, general fiction, and men's fiction".

I am, of course, also leery, because often when people say "men's (anything)" they mean either straight up pornography, or a sort of he-man woman hater's club business that tends to be pretty distasteful. But I'm optimistic that's not where this is going.

EDIT: Aaaand it's been pointed out to me Esquire has a long history of excellent fiction. Here's the highlights of the Esquire collected anthology 1993:

"The Snows of Kilimanjaro" by Ernest Hemingway; "The Death of Justina" by John Cheever; "Towel Season" by Ron Carlson; "Parker's Back" by Flannery O'Connor; "Adult World I" and "Adult World II" by David Foster Wallace; "Neighbors" by Raymond Carver; "Fleur" by Louise Erdrich; "A Man in the Way" by F. Scott Fitzgerald; "In the Men's Room of the Sixteenth Century" by Don DeLillo; "Rock Springs" by Richard Ford; "The Remobilization of Jacob Horner" by John Barth; and "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien.

That's a really boss line up and I'd love to see them carry on in that tradition.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Checkhov's Gun Rack

This one was a request by a good friend. I'm on a writing group that engages in a weekly exercise wherein one of us will put up a prompt and all of us will write for one hour and then share the results. I've actually gotten some really fun (albeit unpolished) stories from this, and I enjoy both writing and world building on the fly.

Because I only have an hour, I usually won't spend to much time figuring out what I'm going to do. As soon as I have a vague concept (usually related to the prompt), a character with one or two traits (eg. a shy student, a crabby old woman, an outlaw poet), a goal (eg. to be married, to be normal, to protect a colony of monkeys), and an obstacle, I dive in.

And the first thing I do is start putting in detail completely at random.

Alright, not completely at random. If I want to write a funny story, it will be funny detail; same for horror, romance, what have you. Details will be as in-period as I can make them without research if it's a period piece. Things won't be per se infodumped- in part because I'm not attempting coherency yet- but at every juncture I can without stopping the action, I'll drop in something specific. The heroine has five children, two of whom have died. The garden is full of mangoes and cinnamon trees. The love interest worked in a cigar shop until it burned down. The town's main export is gourmet cheese. Umbrellas have become fashionable even on sunny days. It is religiously forbidden for women to wear shoes. Just, you know, whatever. It doesn't need an internal logic or consistency. I'm building on the fly.

In trying to explain this and grasping for terms, I started calling it Chekhov's gun rack. You know some of them have to be fired by the end, but you can get away without shooting all of them. In improv theater terms, it's called "saying yes"- taking every new idea put forward as true and doing whatever you have to not to contradict it.

By the time I've inserted half a dozen to a dozen details (and I've been writing this whole time), patterns will have begun to suggest themselves. Perhaps our heroine, now a crabby older woman, lost those two children in an epidemic that caused people to radically rethink their faith and adopt all sorts of new, troublesome, fundamentalist practices, like women being forbidden from wearing shoes. This offers up a great potential conflict, since she and her love interest can be of different opinions as to whether or not this is a good thing- which in turn gives them something to believe and reasons to believe it (being righteous didn't save his shop from burning down, did it?). It also presents some additional obstacles for my main character (there are jobs she can't safely do and places she can't safely go without shoes- or indeed, perhaps she's been denied the protection of footwear she has some sort of wound or old injury that results in a limp). What I can't consolidate (mangoes, cheese, umbrellas) becomes background detail and ambiance (in this case it means our setting is tropical, linked to broader trade networks, probably industrialized, and relatively prosperous on the global scale), and what I can weave in starts eventually (hopefully) to support itself and look like it was planned from the start. Occasionally, I'm left with something striking but orphaned (I wrote an alien invasion story where I'd stated there was no more coffee anywhere in the world, but left it unsupported as to why or how it was connected), but distracting little bits like that are pretty easy to delete later.

Just as a note- I'll often throw out the first idea I have for connections or extrapolations (in the above example my first impulse was to write the woman as grouchy about how things have changed and her lost freedom, while the man was a true believer, but I think it's actually more charming the other way around, as the heroine then goes from someone who cannot fight against the overwhelming currents of her times to someone who refuses to engage in acts that would actually benefit her, because they run counter to her convictions. It also makes for a more sympathetic love interest. I envision a gentle, sad old man.) The easiest answer is often not the most interesting one.

The process doesn't lend itself to careful world building, but I find I really like the results, which end up as often as not being kind of quirky and unexpected. Honestly, even when I have world-built, I still do some of this, because I find it much easier (and honestly more fun) than trying to start by making a complete and consistent world and extrapolate the details that logically follow from it.

In my experience, life itself is chaotic, and full of silly little things that don't fit neatly. Like a brutal dictator kidnapping a film director to make his personal rubber-suit monster movie, or a large amount of the red food dye you eat being ground up insect shells. It's not always something you could have come up with logically, but it makes the world a more interesting place.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Best Amateur Underwater Photography of 2011

As judged by National Geographic. Here's to the hobbyist, who don't do it because they have to. The root word for amateur is love. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Nick Mamatas on Laurel K. Hamilton (which, in retrospect, sounds kind of dirty)

Just an article on why Laurel K. Hamilton commands as much market share as she does, and why she deserves to. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Tale of Two Stupid Commercials

I watch some of the fine programming content Comedy Central makes available through their web page, which unfortunately means I see the same small set of commercials over and over again, ad nauseum (see what I did there?).

There's the regular stuff, happy pastel singing laundry detergent, horrible snide neighbors lording their smart phones over people, a kid who loves bacon so much he marries it (which ends with "you may now eat the bride" and a sickening wet chomp that is the stuff of nightmares). But there was one in particular that bothered me.

The ad follows a handsome, scruffy young man on the prowl for fresh lady-meat, but every time he comes close to one of his victims, flakes of head skin swarm from his rakishly unkempt mop like a swarm of cylon fighters, and the girl's face slow-motion freezes in a look of unnameable, lovecraftian horror before she vaporizes in a puff of cgi dust, leaving her discarded clothes. The young man looks sad to have missed an opportunity for sex, but doesn't seem particularly weighed down by the guilt of constantly annihilating strangers with the mere presence of his weaponized dandruff. He then goes home and shampoos with the advertised brand, and, miraculously three different girls appear (I think they're implied to be the same girls, but I don't think they are) without those pesky clothes that were left behind. They proceed to paw insatiably at his head, with that vacant, slightly bite-y look models wear on the covers of both Cosmo and GQ. "Don't lose girls to dandruff" the sophisticatedly accented lady announcer reminds you, in case you missed the message.

I know, intellectually, that the intended message of this commercial is "buy our dandruff shampoo!" and not "women who do not want to sleep with you functionally may as well not exist." But I went out of my way to be somewhere else when the unskippable ad came on. This one commercial is probably responsible for more clean dishes in my apartment than any two other factors combined.

So then a new ad came into rotation. "Don't you wish you could just make some things disappear?" a young woman in club wear asks, as a rat-like man with an open-to-the-sternum disco shirt seems to sniff at her from behind. She flashes him a disgusted look and he pops in a familiar cgi dust effect that sets her hair swishing playfully at the camera. She then walks toward us with swinging hips as she enumerates the virtues of the particular tampon she's trying to sell us. Across the room, a nonthreatiningly normal looking boy is being chatted up by two women you don't really see well before our off-screen heroine presumably splatters them out of existence with the sheer, horrible force of the obliteration power this new tampon has granted her. She then skips up and begins a happy conversation we can only assume he's smiling and nodding along to out of fear for not only his life, but his very physical existence.

This ad is also stupid, but it doesn't bother me.

And I got to wondering if that makes me a hypocrite. I mean, I like to think I'd also be bothered if the god-murderess of the second commercial were going up to dudes and trying to engage them in tampon conversation, only to vaporize them horribly when they told her they just wanted to be friends. Tampon girl is malicious in a way dandruff boy isn't. Sure, her first murder could be argued to be defensive, or at least provoked, but all those girls were doing was standing next to a boy whose attention she wanted. They didn't deserve to die. Dandruff boy just wanders through a hellscape of unintended casualties (though he's either incredibly callous or really bad at pattern recognition to keep at it). Maybe I'd be upset if the dudes in the second commercial were as objectified as the ladies in the first. Dandruff boy's new shampoo lands him a silent, lustful harem and the implied promise of sex with at least two more women than we assume he has penises; while all tampon girl seems to want is a chance to talk to her boy of choice. These dudes don't have time for much development, but they do at least get "creepy potential date rapist" and "cute but normal boy", while the lady's characters are "sexy, horrified club girl", "sexy, horrified librarian", and "sexy, horrified gym girl", all of which dissolve away into "indistinct, hair-crazed sex-vixen". But those two other girls in the tampon commercial get about the same, and the second ad gives no indication that they will ever be rescued from the icy void of non-existence, not even for group sex with a previously unacceptable stranger.

I don't think I'm having this reaction because deep down I think it's more okay for girls to vaporize boys (and other girls) than for boys to vaporize girls.

But I do have to admit a large part of it probably has to do with the fact that the first ad is, to a certain extent, about me but not for me (girls will totally sex up a guy with a non-flakey head!), while the second ad is, to about the same extent, both about and for me (girls, tampons will make all your life's travails conveniently vanish!). I wonder if there are gentlemen out there, similarly given to pointless analysis, who rankle at the idea of a tampon-powered psychic serial killer cornering them after she brutally dispatches all the other perfectly nice girls. The boy in the commercial doesn't seem to mind, but then again, neither do the bitey towel girls in the shower-seraglio foursome.

I can't get over the feeling that the disparate responses I have to these two ads are meaningful. Telling. It's possible I think this because it's very late at night, I admit, but still.

It probably doesn't bear thinking about.

But I'm going to anyway. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Bad Romance

Bizarro Authrix Spike Marlowe runs an advice column called "How to Have a Paranormal Romance". Go. Amuse yourselves. Learn about face eating. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Non-Western Science Fiction Roundtable

Locus Magazine Roundtable of folk talking about non-Western Science Fiction. It goes deconstructionist pretty fast, but I think it's worth reading and thinking about. Ends a little abruptly though. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Outside Over There

I didn't realize how much of my childhood was written by Maurice Sendak until I was an adult. You never pay attention to that sort of thing when you're little. But when my sisters had kids, my mothers and I would tuck them into bed with In the Night Kitchen and Where the Wild Things Are. I can close my eyes and see the illustrations of a little bear in a cardboard space suit coming home or the melting ice baby from Outside Over There.

There's an amazing feeling, when you open up a book that your parents read to you, as if suddenly the world warps and you're warm in somebody's lap, and the universe is composed of sugary cereals and climbable trees, and problems that the distant adult part of you knows weren't ever problems at all. You remember how much bigger the world looked, and that sense of wonder. And these little things, these incantations of memory- "Ida played her wonder horn", "Max, the king of where the wild things are"- are anchors that keep you from drifting too far away from that part of yourself.

We lost a man today to whom I owe some of the first dreams planted in the garden of my imagination. Thank you, Mr. Sendak. I'll read you to my children, and I hope they will read you to theirs. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Piracy on the High CDs.

DVDs, actually, but I love puns. Examination of the altruistic criminal work of Mr. Hyman Strachman.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Hey!

Hey! Did you know Peter S. Beagle and Joe R. Landsdale collaborated on an anthology?

Neither did I!

I went ahead and bought this, because Beagle and Landsdale represent the opposite poles of why I love fantasy. Beagle has this weird, beautiful, gossamer, cerebral writing that's full of language play and allusions to the kind of nerdy obscurities that make me happy to have spend as much time locked away in libraries as I did as a kid. And Landsdale. Man. Nothing is sacred, nothing is too horrible, nothing is too strange. I got to see Landsdale read live once, and there was a passage about broken teeth that still sticks with me. Zombie brothels where the underaged dead have chickenwire masks around their clacking teeth and oceans boiled away so that legged whales drag themselves through the mud in a dead world. And Bubba Hotep. He also wrote that.

Like I said. I went ahead and bought it because how could these two working together be anything but good?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

David Brin at io9

The writer behind the Uplift series talks about science fiction, the singularity, and the outlook of humanity over at io9.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Story a Day in May (II)

I'm doing Story a Day in May again this year. The rules are as simple as can be- 31 first draft stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. They don't have to be long, but they have to be complete.

I did this last year, and it was a very productive exercise. One of the stories from the batch so far has been published- Wendigo Bake Sale, which just ran at the Drabblecast- and there are at least a few others which I think can be polished to professional quality. All in all, that by itself would justify keeping up with it, but there were a couple of other interesting things that came of it as well.

I ended up writing more, which is probably to be expected. The goal wasn't any particular volume of words, but often stories go longer than what I had set as my daily goal.

I also ended up writing more experimentally. I wrote something in second person future which will never see the light of day, but which was fun and educational to create. I wrote a story that was one giant sentence, mostly a list. I tried to deliberately write in the style of other famous writers, just for a giggle. Every day I knew I had to do something, but I also knew I'd be doing something again tomorrow, so if today's something was a little indulgent, it didn't matter. I think every now and again, playing around like that, experimenting just for the joy of it, is an incredibly valuable thing to do as a writer.

Because really, when you get right down to it, it's all supposed to be fun, isn't it?

(by the way, of absolutely infinite story a day value are the many essays on flash fiction by Mr. Bruce Holland Rogers)