Monday, December 29, 2008

What is The Muppetrix?

Current Reading: The Sculptress, by Minette Walters

Inspirational Quote: "It's a myth! A myth!"... "Yeth?" -- Kermit, The Muppet Movie.

I sat down and watched the new Muppets Christmas Special ("Letters to Santa") with my daughter a few weeks ago. It was unremarkable. On the one hand, that's a shame. On the other hand, at least Kermit, Piggy, Fozzy, Gonzo and the rest made an appearance for the first time since Muppet Wizard of Oz. If you've seen MWO, then you have my sympathies. With the death of Jim Henson, the Muppets seemed to lose a lot of their heart and zing. Their purchase by the Walt Disney company seemed to suck the last of the vitality out of the franchise, and I despaired that I would ever see them again in circumstances that did not cause me shame. Letters to Santa restored a bit of my faith. It wasn't good, but it wasn't terrible, either.

A while back, I sat down after watching the Matrix and worked out what would have happened if Kermit and company had been in charge. I never completed it, but I'm sure the result would have been a better movie, and may have gone something like this...

The Muppetrix
An Unauthorized Muppet Parody
Part 1

[black screen. Close up of a slot machine tumbling.]
Miss Piggy: {makes munching noises}
Lew Zealand: You stopped by the vending machine again, didn't you.
Piggy: Hands off, Zealand. {More munching}.
Sam the Eagle: {coughs}
Piggy: Are you sure this line is secure?
[The slot machine stops spinning. The dials show two bags of chips and a chocolate bar]
Sam: Of course it is.

[Exterior Spy Hotel. Scooter in police uniform. Sam enters, followed by Statler and Waldorf]
Scooter: I just sent a squad up. They're bringing her down.
Piggy {in distance}: Hai-yah!
[Muppet falls past from somewhere overhead]
Sam {examines muppet}: He's unconscious. He's going to miss the whole movie.
Statler: Then he's luckier than the audience!
Statler and Waldorf: Ho ho ho!

[Interior hotel room, blurred. Muppets lie in heaps, groaning. Piggy on cell phone].
Piggy: They found me.
Gonzo: You have to focus, Piggy.
[room zooms into focus]
Piggy: How's that?
Gonzo: Better. There are three agents.
Piggy: Agents? Come to see moi? I knew that audition for "StarWarts: The Froggy Menace" would pay off!
Gonzo: Not that kind of agent! Run!

[Exterior street corner with snack machine. Piggy appears, running. Agents are close behind her. Piggy dives into vending machine trough and manages to wriggle through just as agents arrive.]
Sam: She got out.
Statler: I wish we could! Ho ho ho!
Sam: It doesn't matter. We know our informant is real, and we know their next target.
Waldorf: The frog.

[Interior, dark room. Kermit asleep on computer keyboard. Letters appear on computer screen]
Computer: Wake up, Kermit.
Kermit: {snores}
Computer: Kermit!
Kermit: {rolls over}
Computer: {full screen bright lettering} WAKE UP!
Kermit: {jerking awake in surprise}
Computer: The Muppetrix has you, Kermit.
[Creepy fanfare music. Kermit looks around, trying to locate its source.]
Kermit: Who's the wise guy?
Computer: Follow the white rat, Kermit.
Kermit: The white rat?
[Knocking on door. Kermit opens door. Rizzo on other side, all white.]
Rizzo: Hey, Kermit, you got a towel? I was baking some treats for my party and got flour all over me.
Kermit: Yeah, sure Rizzo. Um, can I come with you?
Rizzo: To the party? The more the merrier. You okay?
Kermit: A little tired. My computer woke me up.
Rizzo: You're weird, Kermit.
[Door closes behind them]

[Interior, Rizzo's apartment. Party in progress. Lots of rats. Kermit holding a piece of cheese. Piggy standing nearby trying to look attractive]
Piggy: Kermy!
Kermit: How did you know my name?
Piggy: We know lots of things about you, Kermy. I'm Piggy.
Kermit: Piggy? The one who ate her way through the "Sticky Fingers" chocolate factory?
Piggy: Alright, so I had a craving. Look, Frog, we know you're trying to find Gonzo.
Kermit: I am?
Piggy: But that's not what you want.
Kermit: It isn't?
Piggy: No. You want the answer to your question. You know the question, don't you Kermy?
Kermit: Why does Keanu Reeves have an acting career?
Piggy: No! What is the Muppetrix, dummy!
[Creepy fanfare music. Party stops while everyone looks around for the source.]
Piggy: The answer's out there, Kermy, and it'll find you if you let it. [She walks away, pushing rats aside]. Pardon moi... Mysterious exit coming through!
Rizzo: Who was your friend?
Kermit: I think she was the voice in my computer.
Rizzo: You need to get out more.

Part 2:
[Interior, office. Outside, Sweetums is washing windows. Kermit enters, breathless.]
Kermit: I'm sorry I'm late, mister Chef, sir.
Swedish Chef: Y'dhurder de vorky-orky.
Kermit: My computer woke me up.
Chef: Yur computerer? Yur wurder, froggy-oggy.

[Interior, Kermit's cubicle. Kermit sits at terminal. Rolf enters in delivery uniform.]
Rolf: Kermit the Frog? Delivery for you.
[Kermit takes package. Rolf leaves. Kermit takes cell-phone shaped like Gonzo's nose out of the package. It rings.]
Kermit: Hello?
Gonzo: You're in danger, Kermit. Look over the wall.
[Kermit looks over the wall to see Sam, Statler and Waldorf enter.]
Kermit: Who are those guys?
Gonzo: Agents.
Kermit: I thought I was already under contract.
Gonzo: Not that kind of agent. They're looking for you.
Kermit: What do I do?
Gonzo: Hop to the office at the end of the hall.
[Interior, office. A circus cannon sits in the middle of the room, pointed out the window. Kermit enters.]
Gonzo: Get in!
Kermit: Are you crazy?
Gonzo: You'll love it! Besides. There are only two ways out of this building. In the cannon, and in their custody. Oh, wait... There's also the the back stairs. And I hear there's a great service elevator around the corner. The choice is yours.
Kermit: Sheesh!
[Exterior street. Kermit is taken out of the building by the agents. Piggy sits on a motorcycle, watching them in its mirror. After a moment she starts mugging glamorously.]

[Interior office. Kermit sits. Statler and Waldorf stand behind him. Sam enters and sits across from Kermit.]
Sam [pulls out thick folder]: Kermit. We have been watching you for some time now. It seems that you have been living two lives. In one, you're Kermit the Frog, staple fixture of children's programming. In another, you're [grows excited] Weiman Carbuncle, Used-car salesman from Philadelphia, known for driving unsafely and re-using his dental floss! Wait... Sorry, wrong file. Nevermind. Your country needs you, and we're willing to throw out this file in exchange for your help in capturing Gonzo.
Kermit: That sounds like a good deal, but I have a better one. You let me go, and I'll talk to Mr. Carbuncle about his flossing.
Sam [Rising and producing a large fly]: No! Instead we're going to plant this bug on you!
[Kermit's tongue lashes out before the sentence is finished, catches the fly and he swallows it. The agents look at him in surprise.]
Kermit: Frogs eat bugs. What did you expect?

[Interior, Kermit's apartment. Kermit sleeping. The phone rings several times before Kermit answers it.]
Kermit: Hello?
Gonzo: Kermit. Do you still want to meet?
Kermit: Who is this?
Gonzo: If the agents knew what I know, they would never have let you go. A taxi is waiting outside to bring you to me. I'll give you all the answers you need.

[Exterior, apartment building. Kermit enters taxi. Inside are Floyd, Janice and Piggy.]
Piggy: Hello Kermy.
Floyd: {Starts meter} Get in, Frog. The meter's running.
[Kermit enters, cab starts moving. Janice pulls out a flashlight and shines it in Kermit's face.]
Kermit: Hey! Stop that!
[Car stops. Kermit opens door.]
Kermit: I can't see! Who are you people!?
Piggy: Don't get out, Kermy. You've been down that road and you know where it leads.
Kermit: Yes! Back to my apartment.
Piggy: But Gonzo wants to meet vous! Pleeeze?
Kermit: Oh, alright.
[Kermit closes door. Car resumes. Piggy pulls out tire pump.]
Kermit: What's that for?
Piggy: We think the agents might have given you a bug.
Kermit: They did. I ate it.
Piggy: Eeew!
Floyd: Uncool!
Janice: Gross, fer shur!
Kermit: Frogs eat bugs. What did you expect?

Part 3:
[Interior, dusty room. There are two chairs, with a table between them. On the table is a box of donuts. Kermit enters, followed by Piggy.]
Piggy: One word of advice, Kermy. Don't mention chickens. He's weirder than you can imagine.
[Piggy leaves. Gonzo enters.]
Gonzo: Kermit! At last! You may have been looking for me for months, but I've been looking for you all my life!
Kermit: I'm in the book.
Gonzo: Do you have any idea how many "the Frogs" there are in this city? Sit. You're here because you know something.
Kermit: I do? What?
Gonzo: How should I know?
Kermit: But you said you'd give me the answers!
Gonzo: Sure! {Holds out piece of paper} Here are the words for your next spelling test.
Kermit: But I want to know about the Muppetrix.
[Creepy fanfare. They look around for its source.]
Gonzo: Oh, the Muppetrix! Well, the Muppetrix surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the galaxy together. You can feel it flowing through you.
Kermit: That's not the Muppetrix, that's the Force!
Gonzo: Really? Cool! Then the Muppetrix must be something that can't be explained, but can only be experienced. {Opens the donut box} Have a donut. If you take the jelly one, then you'll stay here and never know the truth. If you take the one with chocolate sprinkles, then you'll come with us and discover what the Muppetrix really is.
Kermit: What about the cruller?
Gonzo: That's mine.
[Kermit takes the chocolate sprinkles. Gonzo leads him into the next room where a dentist's chair is set up. Piggy, Janice and Floyd are standing around it in surgical garb. Gonzo indicates the chair. Kermit gets in and Piggy takes a breath from the gas mask before strapping him in.]
Kermit: Did you have to do this?
Piggy: Moi? Of course not. They took me to the salon and I had a mudpack [She takes another breath from the gas mask and passes out].
[Gonzo dons surgical gear and picks up an oversized dentist's drill.]
Gonzo: Open wide!
Kermit [struggling]: What? No! Aaaahh!
[Camera moves in on Kermit's mouth as the drill comes closer. Camera enters his mouth and goes down his throat before fading to black].

[Interior bathtub full of suds. Kermit sticks his head up out of the bathtub. He has a metal cap on his head into which an extension cord is plugged.]
Kermit: What? What's going on?
[He looks over the edge of the bathtub to see an endless array of other tubs, each with a muppet wearing a metal cap and extension cord inside it. A human hand appears above Kermit, pulls the plug from his head and hits a button on the tub to open the drain. Water swirls and Kermit begins spinning in place.]

[Exterior river, night. Kermit flies out of a drain pipe and plops into the water. After a moment, a hovercraft shaped like Gonzo's head appears and an extendo-hand comes out to grab Kermit and pull him in.]

[Interior hovercraft. Gonzo appears in front of blurred camera. Behind him plays the intro to MTV's The Real World.]
Gonzo: Welcome to the real world.[Fade out.]

[Fade in. Interior hovercraft. Kermit in vise. Beaker at handle, Gonzo nearby.]Gonzo: Okay, Beaker, give him another squeeze.
Beaker: Meep meep![Beaker turns handle, vise closes, water is squeezed out of Kermit. Fade out.]

[Fade in. Interior hovercraft cabin. Kermit lies on bunk. Gonzo enters wearing mickey mouse ears. Kermit sits up.]
Kermit: Where am I?
Gonzo: A more important question is "What's with the ears?" But have it your way. You're aboard my hovercraft the Nebucaschnozzer. Come on, I'll show you around.
[Interior hovercraft deck. Floyd and Janice are tuning their guitars. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker are fiddling with one of several dentist chairs spread around the deck. Robin is playing with Pokemon cards in a corner. Lew is running around waving his fish. Piggy is face-first in a bag of peanuts. All but Honeydew and Beaker are wearing metal helmets.]
Gonzo: This is the main deck where we broadcast our pirate signal and hack into the Muppetrix. You've met some of my crew. [Goes to each in turn.] This is Floyd. Janice. Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant Beaker. Lew Zealand and his boomerang fish. And the little one behind you is Robin. You already know Piggy.
Piggy [preening.]: Hello, Kermy.
Kermit: Hi ho, everybody.
Gonzo: It's time you found out the truth, Kermit. It's time you found out what the Muppetrix really is. {Points him to one of the seats.} Doctor, load us up.
[Kermit sits in one of the dentist chairs. Piggy picks up an extension cord from nearby and plugs it into the helmet on Kermit's head.]
Piggy: Now, this might feel a leeetle bit weird.
Gonzo: Yeah! It's the best part!

[White space. Kermit appears without headgear. Gonzo appears upside down.]
Gonzo: Woohoo! I love that! {He drifts one way, then another} This is the loading program. We use it to supply us with anything: cars, weapons, clothing and chia pets. We can even get the Chicken Sports Network in here.
Kermit: You mean this isn't real? What happened to that thing on my head?
Gonzo: I have no idea! Isn't it great? {Chairs and a television set appear. Gonzo produces a remote.} Whee! Most of what we know about the real world has been pieced together from old files and Gypsy fortune tellers. [Television shows shot of person showering] Once upon a time, people washed themselves with cloths. We don't know what happened then, but suddenly there weren't any cloths any more. It takes about twenty square yards of foam rubber to produce the average Muppet. Between Sesame Street, the movies, The Muppet Show and Muppets Tonight, people had found all the sponges they would ever need. [Television shows shot of the bathtub array, with helmetted Muppets lying in their tubs]. There are fields, Kermit, endless fields, where Muppets are soaked until we're soft and soapy.
Kermit: That's unbelievable!
Gonzo: I didn't believe it myself, but then I went there and saw it... {Television shows person in shower washing with soapy Gonzo,who's whooping and enjoying himself}. What is the Muppetrix? It's an interactive video-game plugged right into our heads, an illusion to keep us from realizing what's really going on. The Muppetrix is an industry designed to turn a Muppet into one of these {holds up sponge}.
Kermit: No. No! Let me out! Aaaa!
[Interior, main deck. Kermit struggling in dentist's chair.]
Kermit: Get this thing off of me! Get it off!
[Piggy pulls plug from his head. He hops out of the chair, takes two steps, and faints.]

Friday, December 26, 2008

Book Report: Nation, by Terry Pratchett

This is not a Discworld book, which surprised me. I've read so many of them that I think part of me had become convinced that Discworld was all he wrote. It takes place instead on an alternate Earth, a little changed both in history and geography. Another change is the tone of the book. A kind of silly, joyous meditation on human nature fills much of his Discworld work. This book contains a more somber, thoughtful story, one which borders on melancholy. It still has Pratchett's humour in it, moments of absurdity or situation comedy or turns of phrase which made me laugh.

It is about the weight of the past and the lure of the future, about what makes children adults, about Gods, Religion, hope and despair... about reconciling dreams with reality. A primitive boy, whose home island is destroyed by a tidal wave on the day he is to become a man, encounters a shipwrecked girl from a 19th century England. They come together to ensure their own survival, and soon find themselves making a home for dozens of other refugees. As their population grows, they face sharks, pirates, cannibals and the English Empire, coming through by virtue of their intelligence and willingness to sacrifice for each other.

Ulysses Rating: 5 - I'll read this again and again.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Book Report: The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch

If you'd like to mess up a man who's just over forty and wondering what to do with his life, then I strongly recommend a one-two punch of the book The Last Lecture and the movie The Bucket List. If that combination doesn't cause existential agitation, nothing will. But I digress (can you digress before you've even started?).

The Last Lecture is a companion book to Pausch's Last Lecture, given at Carnegie Mellon University shortly before his death from cancer. The lecture is all about achieving your childhood dreams, but it's also a love letter to his family and a legacy for his children. The book goes into Pausch's thoughts and feelings before, during, and after his address, touching on events in his life and expounding on the details surrounding many of the things he only mentions in the lecture.

The anecdotes and observations are simply presented, easily read, and very affecting. Knowing that Pausch wrote in the shadow of his own death, and that he has since died (10 months after giving the lecture), gives the words a poignancy that is truly heart-breaking. In every line you can hear a man almost desperate, not so much to leave something behind, but to send something into the future, a future when his children might be old enough to come across his words and understand a little about the man who helped create them but could not live to see them come into their own.

A tremendous book.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this. It would be a 5, but I don't think I could bring myself to read it again.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Big Questions and Little Trinkets

Current Reading: The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch

Inspirational Quote: "The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning." -- Mitch Albom

A number of things have been on my mind lately, all of a theme.
  • "The Last Lecture," as mentioned above and available on YouTube here. It's been said that the only good thing that comes of jumping off a cliff is the way the mind becomes wonderfully concentrated. All the big questions resolve themselves into one: "How am I going to get out of this alive?" It remains just as difficult to answer as the Big Questions (Who am I? Why am I here?) but has the advantage of being eminently practical. The future ceases to be this big, nebulous whirl of possibilities and becomes a single, accelerating certainty. And of course, the final moments are full of event, which can substitute for revelation if one is in a hurry. Randy Pausch died. He wasn't happy about it, but in the months beforehand he threw away all the fears and hesitations that rule most lives and just got on with living while he could.
  • A short presentation on Living in the Moment, offered by work to combat stress. There's a lot of stress at work these days, as I'm sure there is in every workplace as we watch the economy swirl and flush. Dr. Pausch discovered how to live in the moment when the nearness of his death forced him to realize that time, a series of moments, was all he had. I'd like to be able to do that, but I have no desire to die in order to achieve that kind of enlightenment. The presentation suggested meditation, which I've tried with moderate success. After a time, my thoughts give way either to dial tone, or a selection of old Carpenter's songs suitable for playing in elevators or dentist's offices.
  • The fact that I'm just over forty and thus developmentally predisposed toward pondering the Big Questions. I've read that the mid-life crisis may have a hormonal basis, that there are biological changes in men just as there are in women but we deal with them by buying Porsches and getting divorces instead of overheating and spontaneously weeping. I'm not into sports cars at all and I'm in love with my wife. Consequently I find myself with no idea what to do. It's a little frustrating.
  • I won a "Family Entertainment Basket" in a raffle yesterday. A friend brought in some tickets his daughter was selling to raise money for the local swim team. I bought a ticket as a kindness. I'm now the somewhat perplexed owner of Kung Fu Panda on DVD, a game of Trouble (of which we already have one), a horde of gift cards, a couple of Christmas tree ornaments, a candle in a can and a humorous salt and pepper set (a pair of ceramic Santa feet sticking up out of a ceramic chimney). Honestly: how exactly is a candle in a can fun for the family? I suppose we could go around the house setting fire to things, but I can see where that would get old and expensive very fast. I'm keeping the DVD (fun movie), donating the game to the local toy drive, and applying the gift cards where needed. I have no idea what to do with the other items, though. I think they're symptomatic of a general societal malaise, the tendency to accumulate stuff as a safe and easy substitute for the search for meaning. I don't like a lot of stuff. It makes it hard to find the things I'm looking for. The original Ulysses may have been Ithacan, but this one is more of a Spartan in temperament. The items are completely impractical, and their ability to inspire humor lasted about fifteen seconds. I could give them away, but I can't imagine who would want them or why.

Maybe I'll sign them "Bill Shatner," and put them on E-Bay. Now THAT would be funny... and probably profitable.

Book Report: Agent to the Stars, by John Scalzi

According to the introduction, this was Scalzi's first novel. He describes it as a kind of proof of concept, an answer to the question, "Can I write a novel?"
That's an interesting approach and rationale, and an even more interesting result. Sure it's got its flaws. I thought the plot meandered a bit, like a man exploring new country, and his tone was a little too flippant at times. However, Scalzi's first attempt at a novel is still worth paying to read.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Monday, December 8, 2008

In Memoriam: Uncle Forry

Forest J. Ackerman is dead.

I never knew the man, although of course I knew of him. He is a man who was never ashamed of his fandom, who made it his life as well as his living, who revelled in both the trappings and the people of sci-fi. As a result, he was loved.

The rest of us should be so lucky.

Book Report: The Digging Leviathan, by James P. Blaylock

This is one of Blaylock's first novels. It's the story of a boy, his crazy father, his best friend who happens to be a half-mermaid inventor, and an evil doctor who may be a fish. It also has the poet William Ashbless in it, which is always nice to see. He pops into stories by Blaylock and Tim Powers quite regularly, sometimes even as a main character. Blaylock writes beautifully, with evocative descriptions and a flair for quirky characterization. However, in this book, he doesn't write very coherently. I had the devil of a time figuring out what was going on, and why. Giles Peach, the half-merman, has the ability to distort reality, and the crazy father is given to delusions, so it's difficult to separate the imaginary from the real sometimes.

Even at the end of the book, questions about the nature of Ashbless (is he an old man with the same name as an 18th century poet, or is he the 18th century poet?), Giles Peach, mermen, Han Koi and the pirates living on the subterranean ocean under California, Hilario Frosticos, and just what is really happening, go largely unanswered. I don't mind a bit of mystery still hanging about at the end of a book, but I hate reaching the end without understanding anything.

The book also ends with the start of a journey to Pellucidar, the world inside the hollow earth, and I was left wondering "what happened next?" Of course, the book isn't about Pellucidar, it's about being a boy and being a man in that strange netherworld between E.R. Burroughs novels and Einstein's deterministic universe. Still, I felt like I was left hanging.

Ulysses Rating: 2 - I had a tough go.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Is Ithaka Age-Appropriate Reading?

Current Reading: The Digging Leviathan, by James P. Blaylock

Inspirational Quote: "I’m thirty years old, but I read at a thirty-four-year-old level." -- Dana Carvey

For those of you who have been wondering:
blog readability test

This just goes to prove that, despite intervening years and education, I am still the person I was in high school. Only more sort of... wrinkled.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Danger in Words

Current Reading: The Digging Leviathan, by James P. Blaylock

Inspirational Quote: "Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine." -- Sir Arthur Eddington

During one of those surreal moments that make my days worth living, a friend of mine pointed out that, when making tea, we "plug the kettle in." However, when the water's boiling, we "unplug the kettle." We don't "plug the kettle out." Conversely, before we "unplug" the kettle, we don't "plug" it.

This is why I love English. It makes no sense. In what other language would "flammable" and "inflammable" mean the same thing, but "continent" and "incontinent" not?

All of which (because my head is an unusual place) leads me to wonder about the "For Dummies" and "Complete Idiot's Guide" books. Why is there no "Dummies Books for Dummies" guide for those who don't understand the rudiments of the collection? Or how about "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Complete Idiots" for those who fail to recognize the unintelligent before suffering the unpleasant consequences of encountering them?

There are no Field Guides to North American Birdwatchers, either.

And I've always laughed at those instruction manuals which open with a section entitled, "How to use this book," as though the instruction manual were in need of an instruction manual.

Mostly True Story:

A number of years ago when I lived in Toronto, I worked for a man who developed an unusual problem. During a windstorm, an old, cracked plastic garbage can had blown into his yard. He set it out by the corner, hoping someone would recognize and claim it. When no one did, he decided to throw it out. He left it out on the curb on garbage day, but the sanitation engineers didn't recognize it as trash and left it there. He tried putting it in his own garbage can with other stuff and leaving it again. They emptied both cans and left the broken one behind. Finally he wrote a "Take me" sign and taped it to the broken can.

They took the sign.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Losing Heroes

Current Reading: The Digging Leviathan, by James P. Blaylock

Inspirational Quote: "I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries." -- Frank Capra
"What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out" -- Alfred Hitchcock

Today's quotes, which I chose solely because they relate to the content below, coincidentally come from two great American directors of drama. How convenient.

I don't watch much television. Sure sometimes I'll zone out in front of the tube and accidentally catch one episode of something or other, but I don't watch regularly. I haven't found anything that rewards any commitment to regular viewing. I thought that had changed a few years ago.

In 2006, NBC tried to climb out of the ratings basement by creating a nifty little show called "Heroes." The pitch was simple: what if ordinary people developed superpowers? The market research had already been done by blockbuster films like Batman Begins, X-Men and Spider-Man. The audience was there. On television, "Lost" was already proving that serial storytelling could work. That a serial story about superheroes would succeed seemed inevitable.

And it did succeed. Heroes was the only hit to break out of the crop of new series that made the airwaves in September 2006. It had flaws, of course, characters tended to suffer from "plot induced stupidity," and occasionally the budget just wasn't up to the effects demanded by the story (season one's final confrontation between two super-powered characters devolved into a disappointingly mundane fistfight). However, it also had its moments of brilliance ("Company Man").

Then season two hit the airwaves and everything fell apart. Old characters fell victim to wildly improbable plots (Peter gets amnesia and gets shipped to Ireland?) while new characters suffered from stories so melodramatic that they bordered on farce (Maya and Alejandro's storyline provoked ridicule from just about every critic). Many changes between the seasons went unexplained (why did Matt abandon his wife and child, move in with Mohinder and adopt Molly? What happened to Nathan's family?). And the similarities between season one and two seemed to be in all the wrong places. Once again, the story put the world in danger and it was up to the main characters to save it. The viewers had seen this before, though, and changed the channel in search of something new.

The season came to an abrupt end with the Hollywood writer's strike, leaving some plots unresolved and scores of questions unanswered. The strike was both a curse, for those of us who wanted those answers, and a blessing for those of us who suspected those answers wouldn't make sense. Season two was criticized for moving too slow, for resolving things too fast, for introducing too many new characters and crowding out old ones, and for giving us nothing new.

When the strike ended, the creators came back to Heroes "re-energized." They were ready to take the series in a new direction, to get back to the things that made the first season so great. Season three began with high hopes. The fans were psyched, ready to make Heroes a hit again. Then they saw the premiere. Again, the world was placed in danger. Again, characters took actions that left viewers scratching their heads. Again, viewers were left to wonder how characters got from where they were at the end of two to where they were at the beginning of season three. Some characters were abandoned (Caitlin, lost in a future, and Monica and Micah left staring at Niki's pyre), their stories left untold, and others were introduced. At least one was killed off during his first appearance, even though his story was more interesting than the larger stories going on around him. Wildly improbable plot twists (there's another Company! Mr. Petrelli Sr. isn't dead!) tried to up the dramatic tension but only succeeded in destroying the show's dramatic credibility.

Heroes has no qualms about rewriting, or at least reinterpreting, its past to serve the needs of the present episodes (Nathan's father arranged the attempt on Nathan's life, not Linderman as we had been led to believe). The only vision for its future seems to be rehashing the world-in-jeopardy trope season after season. Its present is consumed with shadowy organizations, super-serums, mad scientists and power-hungry villains. In these respects, it truly does emulate its comic-book roots. There, every new writer has the opportunity rewrite history ("Retroactive continuity," is the term used to explain away story contradictions), and the world is constantly threatened. Unfortunately, what a comic book audience accepts without question is something a television viewer looking for good drama is unable to tolerate.

The heroes of season one faced challenges that meant something personally, that affected them where they were vulnerable and forced them to make hard choices, to learn how to be strong. That's the kind of story that hooks audiences. Sure there can be shadowy organizations and super-serums, but I don't want to see stories about them. I want to see stories about the people they affect. If there's a mad scientist, I want him to know he's going mad and to see him fight it with all his resources. If there's a power-hungry villain, then I want him to have some believable reason for wanting power, a sensible goal that forces him to be a villain. I want to see him struggle with his choices. Put the world in jeopardy sometimes, sure, but remember that little dramas that will also hook the audience. A hero with the power to rip the door off a bank vault becomes much more interesting when she realizes she doesn't have enough money for the rent and has to choose between the right thing and the easy thing.

Heroes, a show about ordinary people with extraordinary powers, seems to have forgotten the "ordinary" part of the equation.

A show about ordinary people with extraordinary powers. I'd love to watch a show like that.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be one on the air right now.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

In Memoriam (Comics Edition)

Current Reading: The Digging Leviathan, by James P. Blaylock

Inspirational Quote: "You can lead a yak to water, but you can't teach an old dog how to make a silk purse out of a pig in a poke." -- Opus (Berkeley Breathed)

Obviously a lot of things have been happening in the world, and equally obviously, a lot of things have been on my mind. Some of them universal (Obama), some of them personal (my son punched another kid in class yesterday). Strangely enough, though, the thing most on my mind at this moment is a penguin.

Goodbye, Opus. You made me laugh at intelligent stuff, and made me wish I knew people like this penguin who looked more like a puffin.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Book Report: The Write Track: How to Succeed as a Freelance Writer in Canada, by Betty Jane Wylie

Obviously, this one's a non-fiction entry. It's an interesting handbook on what it takes, or at least took ten years ago, to build a freelance career in the Great White North. In it, Wylie tells the story of her own rise from widowed single mom to working writer. I found this part, which is only touched on (although repeatedly), to be the most interesting bit. I find myself contemplating the freelance path as somewhat more than an academic exercise. My "day job" has been shaky since the bursting of the tech bubble in 2000 and the recent economic difficulties have made it seem likely that I'll soon be asked to "seek opportunities elsewhere." Still, I'm not quite in Wylie's straits: forced to do something to support her family, and having little to offer the world but a skill with words.

Most of the book consists of practical advice, backed up by anecdotes, on what is required to be a successful freelancer. I found the dry, technical bits regurgitated much of what I've discovered on my own through talking with freelancers and reading publishing blogs. These things, I skimmed through. I hate doing that, and feel guilty. After all the effort people go through to choose and transcribe the right word, it seems insulting not to read them all, but I could take sufficient interest in them to muster up the concentration.

Should the worst come to pass (again), and I be forced to make a living by the written word, this book will be useful to have on hand.

Ulysses Rating: 2 - I had a tough go.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Change Has Come to America

Current Reading: The Write Track, by Betty Jane Wylie

Inspirational Quote: "Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber." -- Plato

Unless you live at the bottom of the Marianas Trench (under a rock and almost 7 miles of ocean), then you know how the U.S. election went. Now begin the interesting times, when Obama must deliver more than just optimism. He must deliver on the promise of hope. He is a great orator, and a man who clearly has a vision. We now have the opportunity to discover if those things, and whatever other talents he brings to the office, are sufficient to face and overcome the tremendous difficulties plaguing his country.

Greater enterprises have had less auspicious beginnings, and Canadian though I am, I have my fingers crossed for him and for every one of his constituents. Good luck.

In other news: author Michael Crichton succumbed to cancer today, dying at the age of 66.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Haiku in Lieu.

I can't think of anything worth putting down today. However, Moonrat requested some Haiku as a present on her 2nd blogging anniversary.

I'm not a poet, but I tried to accommodate anyway.

A star in the night,
All alone, silent, distant.
Enough light for dreams.

An infestation
Of one. Famously unknown.
A rat of the moon.

Can't reach newspaper.
Door shuts, locks. I'm outside now.
In my underwear.

Ah, Michael Chabon,
Whose name uses too many
Of my syllables.

Haiku, a strict form.
Beauty lies in precision.
So don't blow it on the last line.

Chocolate. Dark. Sweet.
Belgian Kryptonite to
A Greek Warrior.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Book Report: Slipt, by Alan Dean Foster

This is a competently put together book, but it didn't move me. I don't think it's the fault of the language, which is technically flawless and of a style that tells the story in a brisk but effective manner. I think it's the plot. It proceeds well enough while it covers the main character, Jake, crossing the southern U.S. He's pursued by hired thugs. The severity of the trouble in which Jake finds himself increases with every mile, and even the villains are surprised at the things they are willing to do (which was a nice twist and makes the villains understandable if not quite sympathetic). I thought it fell down at the climax, though. Foster has the ostensible villain of the story killed off by the villain's boss, who makes a few-page appearance before being killed in his turn. It seemed very non-sequitur, although it ensured that Jake would be pushed to do things against his conscience. I would have preferred to see what happened when both Jake and his antagonist had to find their way out of the stalemate which immediately precedes the climax.

All in all, a good and interesting read, but not a great one.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Nanu-Nanu NaNoWriMo

Current Reading: Slipt, by Alan Dean Foster

Inspirational Quote: "That's not writing, that's typing." -- Truman Capote

This demotivator is from Sean Lindsay's wonderful 101 Reasons to Stop Writing Blog.

November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo is a "contest," in which would-be novel writers try to write 50K words in thirty days. There are no quality or ability requirements, nor is there any prize (writing 50K words in a month is enough of a reward, apparently).

Encouraging people to have fun with words, that's a good thing.

Letting people experience first hand the joy of creating fiction, that's a good thing.

Bringing people together over a love of writing, that's a good thing.

Setting a difficult goal for which people can strive and against which people can measure themselves, that's a good thing.

Really, the only bad thing is the number of people who do this, or try to, and decide, "Hey, this writing thing is easy. I'm going to get this published. I'll get rich!"

Um... no.

  1. It ain't easy. See the lack of "quality or ability requirements" mentioned above. Any idiot can produce prose. To repeat the quote from above, that's not writing, that's typing. Writing 50K words is easy. Writing 50K words that make sense together, that's harder. Writing 50K words that tell a compelling, beautiful story that grips the reader and haunts them and makes them see (or want to see) the world differently, THAT'S bloody-near impossible.

    See, to be good, they have to be the RIGHT 50K words. And, to paraphrase Frost, "that makes all the difference."

  2. It ain't going to get published. Pulp and paper manufacturers all over the world love NaNoWriMo because so many sheets are used to print out those stories (alright... usually it's all done electronically, but go with me on this so I can make a contrasting sentence). Agents and Editors hate it because those pages end up in their in-boxes (there. Done). From what I've read, they have enough examples of careless writing already and do not want any more.

  3. You ain't going to get rich. Stephen King gets rich. Joanne Rowling gets rich. The rest of us get a couple of extra bucks that don't begin to repay us for the months we spend all alone in little rooms trying to find the right 50K words. Usually we blow this on a night out, or our children's education fund.

To sum:

Writing encouragment, good thing.

Delusions of grandeur, bad thing.

Have fun.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Book Report: Sad Cypress, by Agatha Christie

My introduction to Hercule Poirot, I'm ashamed to say, came through television and not through one of Agatha Christie's many mystery books. In 1989, the BBC put together a series of Poirot mysteries starting the wonderful David Suchet, who captured a character who was as endearing as he was eccentric. I doubted that the text versions could be half as entertaining.

As so often is the case, though, the book and the drama are different creatures and should be considered independently.

Unlike Ice Station Zebra, which I found plot heavy and character light, Sad Cypress is as much involved with character as it is with plot. Surprisingly, though, the character in focus is not the nominal hero (Hercule Poirot himself), but the young woman accused of murder. She undergoes an emotional transformation as a result of events in the story. Poirot himself remains unchanged, although his interference is a catalyst for the woman's change. I won't say that it was treated with great emotional depth, which would have been difficult given the British reserve evident in the story and characters, but it was important and it was consistent and it was well done.

I can see why, over thirty years after her death, Agatha Christie is still considered one of the world's greatest mystery writers.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Monday, October 20, 2008

I Can't Think of Anything to Write

(From stolen shamelessly.)

Current Reading: Sad Cypress, by Agatha Christie

Inspirational Quote: "Lower your standards and keep writing." -- William Stafford

On my desk's a bust of Shakespeare
And what's he doing there?
Staring at my work in progress,
And howling his despair.

"You call this claptrap writing?
Where's the poetry, the wit?
Your plot is trite and boring,
Your protagonist's a twit."

"Oh Bill," I cry, "I'm trying,
But the right words just won't come.
My climax's just pitiful,
My antagonist is dumb."

"Oh, fie upon thee," Willy said,
"'Tis well for you to quit."
Then I threw his head in the trash,
'Cause I don't need his sh*t.

(Note: I'm not suffering writer's block. I have, though, and this was funny, so I had to put it up now before I lost it).

What's in a Genre?

Current Reading: Sad Cypress, by Agatha Christie

Inspirational Quote: "The best time to plan a book is while you're doing the dishes." -- Agatha Christie

I've been thinking about genre.

I write the same stories everyone else writes: a character has problem, sets out to solve problem, struggles against antagonistic person or situation, and succeeds or fails. At their core, all stories are like that. Characters change, and problems, possible solutions, antagonists and resolutions; the details change, but the story stays the same.

One of those details is the mold in which the story is cast. What settings and situations surround the story, what expectations the reader ought to bring to their reading, depend on the trappings with which the writer feels most comfortable. I write those stories in a Science Fiction and Fantasy setting because those are the tropes with which I'm most familiar. I enjoy writing with them. They're fun.

But genres can be confusing. How do you label a work when you're really not sure what all those labels mean?

So I found myself thinking about genre and, because this is the way my brain works, the boardgame Clue (according to Wikipedia, it's actually called Cluedo outside of NA. Who knew?). This is the result:

Mystery: Who did it in the Library with a Rope?

Cozy Mystery: Mrs. White takes time out from her obsessive crocheting to figure out who did it in the Library with a Rope.

Thriller: There's a bomb in the house. Colonel Mustard has one hour to figure out who's responsible and where they've put it.

Techno-Thriller: As above, but Colonel Mustard now has access to the full high-tech arsenal of the USAF.

Spy Thriller: replace bomb with microchip schematics of a nuclear weapon, make meek Professor Plum the undercover protagonist and Miss Scarlet a wily assassin working against national interests.

Suspense: Someone's taken out Professor Plum in the Library with a candlestick. Colonel Mustard is next unless he can figure out who's responsible. A knife is missing from the Kitchen, and the Colonel is being led inexorably toward the Lounge.

Science Fiction: Colonel Mustard and his crew of Space Marines must discover who killed Mrs. White, the alien's ambassador on Earth, with a laser blaster in their starship's Library.

Comic Book: Evil Colonel Mustard uses his ability to spontaneously generate rope in order to kill Miss Scarlet, whose psychic powers can't protect her in the shielded Conservatory. To prevent Mustard's ascension to World Ruler, Professor Plum drinks his super-professor serum and becomes the Iron-Clad Avenger.

CyberPunk: Mr. Green is dead, victim of a viral Wrench to the head of his avatar in the on-line Library. Professor Plum, fired from his tenured university position for hacking corporate systems and now reduced to living in the seedy underbelly of a futuristic society, has to figure out who's responsible before he becomes the next victim.

SteamPunk: Professor Plum is killed in his Conservatory with a knife. Miss Scarlet, his assistant, must prevent Colonel Mustard, the half-man, half-clockwork dictator of London, from recovering the professor's research and discovering the secret of the Music of the Spheres.

Fantasy: The half-fey Miss Scarlet dies in the arms of mortal Mr. Green, the victim of an enchanted Candlestick in the Study, Green has to enter the fey realm and obtain water from the magic fountain to restore her before evil Mrs. White takes over the realm.

Epic Fantasy: There is only one way to kill Mrs. White, the witch queen who rules the land, and that is to destroy the enchanted Candlestick that is key to her power. Quiet, comfort-loving Mr. Green, accompanied by his friends Colonel Mustard and Professor Plum, must make their way across the land to Mrs. White's Hall, where they must throw it into the magic fountain where it was created. To get there, they must face the hordes of Orcs and Trolls commanded by Miss Scarlet and Mrs. Peacock.

Urban Fantasy: Nobody in downtown Detroit notices Mr. Green's death by Knife in his Hall except Mrs. White, the local witch. Mr. Green was guarding the seven gateways to the fey realm, and now Miss Scarlet, the elf queen, is free to invade the ghetto.

Horror: Mr. Green killed Colonel Mustard in the Billiard Room with a Revolver, but the good Colonel won't stay dead...

Cthulhu Mythos: Professor Plum's investigation into the murder of Miss Scarlet in the Dining Room uncovers an unholy cult of degenerate, mad New-England cannibals who worship an uncanny idol.

Romance: Miss Scarlet and Mr. Green, separated years ago by circumstances, are brought together by the stabbing death of Mrs. White in the Conservatory.

Period Romance: Miss Scarlet, lady in waiting to Lady White, harbors a forbidden love for Duke Green. When the Duchess is stabbed in the Conservatory by a courtly rival, she finds the mourning Duke finally opening himself to the possibility of love beneath his station.

Erotica: Miss Scarlet does everyone in the Ballroom.

...If there's a genre I missed, let me know.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Book Report: Ice Station Zebra, by Alistair MacLean

A bit of a departure from the usual run of SF/F, this is a cold-war era spy/detective thriller from Britain. The plot is something, with complications and reversals and revelations galore. A typical example of this is the main character's mission, of which he gives four different versions throughout the book. Each version is a little closer to the truth, but only the last of which actually explains what's doing. Set against this is an antagonist whose identity and mission are a mystery to the very end.

The characters are given no depth whatsoever, as is typical in this sort of thing. But the events of the plot come so quickly that there's no time for depth.

The story concerns a British civilian doctor who boards an American nuclear submarine to rescue a scientific detachment trapped on the ice in the high arctic. I'm used to reading North American renditions of British characters and their speech. I wonder if our depictions of them are as skewed as MacLean's depiction of the Americans in his book. Speech mannerisms and idioms are just off base enough that it added to the entertainment.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this, but I didn't love it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Election Night In Canada

Current Reading: Ice Station Zebra, by Alistair MacLean

Inspirational Quote: "Democracy gives every man the right to be his own oppressor." -- James Russell Lowell

Tonight, we Canadians answer a vital question:

Will we allow the governing Conservative party, which has lied to us and made our lives miserable, to continue to do so for another four years, or will we elect some other party to lie to us and make our lives miserable?

As Woody Allen has said, "One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

Monday, October 13, 2008

Book Report: Falling Sideways, by Tom Holt

Tom Holt belongs to a group of people I love: British humorous fantasists. Douglas Adams was the first I discovered, and Terry Pratchett is the one I admire most. Tom Holt falls somewhere in the spectrum between the two.

I want to like Falling Sideways. I do. It's got frogs and a beleaguered protagonist and a lot of jokes about Windows 98. And some very clever and unexpected similes, which is half the fun in these books.

However, it all just doesn't work for me. Sorry. The plot is complex and contradictory and although being confused is mildly enjoyable at times, I reached the end of the book and thought, "I don't think the payoff was worth wading through the rest of the story."

Ulysses Rating: 2 - I had some trouble with this.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Lost at Sea, No Map, Won't Ask for Directions...

Current Reading: Falling Sideways, by Tom Holt

Inspirational Quote: "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." -- W. Somerset Maugham

I think novel writing is a like an ocean voyage. I know where Ithaka is, I'm just not certain how to get there. And I keep getting sidetracked by sorceresses and monsters.

Okay, obviously not an ordinary ocean voyage. This ship doesn't even have shuffleboard, let alone a fully-stocked bar.

But I digress.

I got a little side tracked a couple of weeks ago. I was making no real progress on the Magnus Somnium. I went back and rewrote passages without making them better. I wrote upcoming scenes. I found other things to do. I was crossing the same patch of ocean without finding a way forward.

I'd almost reached the third act of the book, the one packed with action. All the revelations, surprises and back stories are out of the way and it's a straight downwind run to port. It should have been easy. It wasn't.

So, in a fit of creative dithering, I decided to do something I've never done before. I wrote an outline for the remaining portion of the book. It's not much. It takes up about half a page. It's just a breakdown of the important actions that have to happen in each chapter to lead up to the resolution: X does this, Y does that, and Z gets in the way.

It's had a remarkable effect, though. I won't say that my writing has improved because I think it lacks depth and resonance. However, I'm making considerable progress now that I've got a decent set of charts. I'm willing to sacrifice a little depth because this is only a second draft, and there will be opportunity to resonate in the third.

I've never been one for outlines. I've always felt I knew well enough where things were going that I didn't need to put it down. However, the very act of writing down the outline has clarified my direction and sharpened my focus. The end doesn't seem as far away or unobtainable as it did a few short weeks ago.


I may be an outline convert. I'll have to see how things go.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Book Report: Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

I'm quite fond of Connie Willis's work. From the quirky romance of Bellwether to the quirky tragedy of Passage, she manages to take the ordinary and make it both funny and extraordinary. So I was a little surprised that I had some trouble reading The Doomsday Book, especially considering that it won the Hugo and the Nebula. I had difficulty right from the start, and I still don't understand why. The setup is fast, and the inciting action occurs quite early. The characters are well-drawn and interesting. It's a mystery, and I admit it may have more to do with me than with Ms. Willis's work.

I understand my difficulty getting through the middle section much better. Once the main character, a time-travelling historian, arrives in the middle ages the pace of the story drops considerably. A lot of time is spent developing the characters of those around her, and giving the reader tremendous detail about the setting time, place and society. However, not much happens to move the story forward. It is only near the end of the second book that Willis reveals the danger the protagonist is in, and from there the pace picks up considerably, with tragic results.

Don't get me wrong. Willis is great. I doubt I'll ever read this book again, but I know I'll pick up Willis soon. My wife has To Say Nothing of the Dog on the bookshelf.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Moment

Current Reading: The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

Inspirational Quote: ""When in doubt, make a fool of yourself. There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth. So what the hell, leap." -- Cynthia Heimel

"Sorry, but if you're finished with that, could I have a look?"
"What? NewsMaker Monthly?"
"Yes, please."
"You do know it's the January issue, right?"
"I can see that, yes."
"That would explain C-3PO on the cover, yes."
"You can't really count on it for current news then."
"Granted. It is a way to kill time, though, and it's always a laugh seeing what everyone thought was important back then."
"If you like that, there's a March '68 here with Nixon on it."
"Nixon? Oooh! That'll double me over for sure."
"Here you go, then. Have you been waiting long?"
"Two NewsMaker Monthlies, a Northern Hunting and the June through September issue of the Sears catalog from 1984. Oh, and the Cat In the Hat. I can't resist Dr. Seuss."
"I had a ten-thirty appointment. It's quarter to two now."
"So it is. Time flies, hm?"
"The funny thing is, I haven't seen anyone come in or out of the office. Not even the receptionist."
"She's a nurse, actually."
"Nurse, then. I haven't even seen her."
"No, you wouldn't have. She's been let go. A bit incompetent, she was. Obsessive. She booked every appointment for 10:30 and filed everything under P for paperwork."
"How do you know so much about it?"
"Well, that is my name on the door."
"You're doctor Ramone the proctologist?"
"It's pronounced 'Ram-own,' actually. I think the sign maker was having a bit of a laugh. 'Ram-one' indeed."
"Shouldn't you be in the office instead of out here reading magazines?"
"Well, yes."
"Why aren't you?"
"A little problem with the door."
"The door?"
"Yes, it's locked."
"Locked. And I supposed the receptionist nurse has the keys."
"Oh, you're very good."
"Couldn't you call the landlord?"
"That would be me. I own the building."
"Then surely you have another set of keys."
"Actually, no. My wife handles all that. I'm too busy with my practice."
"Well then, why don't you call your wife and have her bring you the spare set?"
"Um... I could. Yes, I could try that. Unfortunately, she's not answering the phone. She's a little despondent."
"Oh, yes. Recently lost her job. Fired, actually."
"Ah. Fired. Receptionist, was she?"
"Nurse, actually."
"Yes, I thought as much."
"Still, so long as your here I suppose we could proceed with your examination."
"Do you think the waiting room is really the best place?"
"Oh, fine. Perhaps it's a good thing the office is closed. You're a very unco-operative patient."

Monday, September 22, 2008

Not On My Reading Shelf

Current Reading: The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

Inspirational Quote: "Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book." -- Marcus Tullius Cicero

I see Kelly Osbourne (Ozzy's progeny) has signed a deal with Virgin books to write her memoir.

I prefer that interesting people write their memoirs in the year before they die. Their age gives them a certain perspective that 23-year-olds just haven't been on the planet long enough to acquire. Since they have only a year to go, they're not likely to do anything so interesting as to require a new edition of the book.

At 23, Ms. Osbourne still has lots of years ahead to make mistakes and court public humiliation. Why write a book that doesn't have an end yet?

I much prefer to think of Warren Buffet's forthcoming biography, The Snowball: Warren Buffet and the Business of Life. Here is an interesting man old enough to have thought deeply about his life before authorizing a book. He's had a profound effect on the financial world, and he may have some things to say that will cause a reader to re-examine their own time on the planet.

I prefer that uninteresting people stick to boring the rest of us with long-winded, rambling, pointless blogs like... well, this one, I guess.

Three frightening things about Ms. Osbourne's literary aspirations:

  1. So many celebrities have train-wreck lives.
  2. So many of them write memoirs.
  3. So many people must buy these in order to support their production.

Honestly, do I have to go out, obtain photographs of me sleeping with Paris Hilton, devolve into a mess of drugs and alcohol and spend six years in rehab just to get a book deal?

I'm willing. I'd just... you know, like to be sure it's all going to work before I take such drastic steps.

Honestly.I couldn't make this stuff up.

Further to last week's post, I have just discovered that we have a Marijuana party. There's a candidate running in one of the local ridings... assuming, of course, he can get off his couch.

It's difficult to be a comedian in a world that comes up with its own punchlines.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

An Unpaid Political Announcement

Current Reading: The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

Inspirational Quote: "Vote early and vote often." -- Al Capone.
"I don't even know what street Canada is on." -- Mr. Capone, again.

Here in Canada, as in the U.S., we are having an election.

I thought this would be a dandy time to point out a few differences between the American and Canadian political process. Mind you, both are ridiculous, but as Winston Churchill observed, "democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

First, we have more than two parties. We have a plethora. Don't believe me?

So how do we make sense of so many bewildering choices?

We don't bother. We're pretty laid back about the whole thing. We vote for the people we like and let party affiliations sort out everything else.

The U.S. has the Democrats and the Republicans. Since the U.S. can be described as a democratic republic, I think they are even more confused than we are.

They have the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House. They can have a Republican House and Senate, but a Democrat in the oval office. They can't get much done, but sometimes that's a good thing.

Here in Canada, we've just got the House of Parliament, the Senate (a retirement home for long-serving members of parliament who wake up long enough to rubber-stamp whatever gets put in front of them), and the Governor General.

Who's the Governor General? Well, she's (it's a she at the moment) the local representative of the true head of our government: the Queen of England. Yep. A woman who has tea in a country thousands of miles away and about 1/50th our size. Fortunately, the Governor General is given simple instructions: rubber stamp anything the Senate rubber stamps. The upshot is that all of our laws are laid down and passed by Parliament, an elected body whose sole purpose is to argue about trivia and occasionally dissolve into expletives and fistfights.

Of course, after the fights, everyone goes out for apologies over beer. We are Canadian after all.

The party which wins the most Parliamentary seats in the election wins the right to form the government. The party leader becomes our Prime Minister.

A Prime Minister is like a President but with fewer perks.

Unlike our American cousins, elections are not a televised sport. There isn't enough time. Once the government announces an election (every four years), everyone has about six weeks to campaign, and that's not enough time to book ahead on talk shows or variety hours. Of course, we don't really have any talk shows or variety hours anyway. There's Canada A.M., which no one watches, and Royal Canadian Air Farce, which everyone watches and therefore has been taken off the air. Instead, we have radio and print coverage, sound bites on the six-o'clock news and the occasional local speech or fundraiser. We also have web sites because we're techologically savvy, but don't visit them because we're politically apathetic.

Six weeks every four years, that's it. In the U.S., elections seem perpetual, with candidates showing up on Oprah and Saturday Night Live. They say Laugh-In helped get Nixon elected, and Clinton's sax solo on Arsenio was a prelude to his sax in the Oval Office. American politicians have to be celebrities. We've only had one celebrity leader: Pierre Trudeau, Canada's answer to J.F.K. Since then, we seem to prefer our Prime Ministers be uninteresting.

That's Canadian politics in a nutshell, an appropriate repository.

And yet... a moment of seriousness: vote. We are part of a minority in the world, countries where democratic principles exist and have not been entirely subverted or corrupted by the powerful. We must defend that by letting our voices be heard. Apathy is our greatest enemy, and will level great empires faster than any barbarian invasion. There's a wonderful line from "V for Vendetta:" People should not be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.

I am Ulysses, and I approve this message.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Beware Solitary Eaters in the Food Court

Current Reading: The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

Inspirational Quote: “It was impossible to get a conversation going; everybody was talking too much.” -- Yogi Berra

Do you every listen to people? I don't mean really listen to them, like "active listening," or whatever. I mean just listen.

Once in a while, I treat myself to a solitary lunch in the food court of the local mall. I don't go there for the food, although there's a nice sushi place nearby and the bulk store around the corner sells chocolate covered almonds (if you see no value in chocolate covered almonds, then we have nothing more to say to each other). Also, Colonel Harlan Saunders seems to have come up with a recipe for kryptonite that people from my planet cannot resist.

I go there to listen to people. So many different people, so many different voices. I don't pay much attention to what people they say. I listen to how they say it: the rhythm, the give and take of conversation. I've noticed something interesting: few people actually talk to each other. I don't mean, "you gonna eat that?" or, "there's special sauce on your sleeve," I mean the things that people say to each other when they're eating.

First of all, eating's kind of a special activity. It brings people together, loosens them up, gets them talking about things that are less immediate than who ordered the chicken nuggets.

Some conversations consist of a speaker and a listener who never change roles. One person talks constantly, and the other person's contribution consists almost solely of nods, grunts and "uh-huh"'s. The speaker goes on about things at length and in detail, while the listener eats, or watches passersby, or rummages through their shopping bags examining their purchases. I wonder what they're thinking, and I wonder if the speaker ever realizes or cares that their words are just passing by.

Some conversations consist of two speakers. While one's talking, the other one is busy thinking about what they're going to say next. They take turns, usually by interrupting each other with phrases like "Yeah, that happened to me last week when..." or "Maybe, but you know..." and then they carry on with something they said on their previous turn. It's basically two monologues with no audience. It's funny to hear, but listening to them leaves me a little sad.

If I'm lucky and am sitting near some speakers who have a long, close history together, I get to hear the most remarkable kind of conversation. It sounds like two different ones, like each person is talking about something else, but there's a subtext there and the clue to it is carried in the rise and fall of voices. They're talking about the same thing, the same feeling or the same idea or the same experience from different points of view. It's like listening to harmony, but it's harmony of thought instead of sound:
"Sheesh, up at the lake, man, we had this thing."
"Sure. Like that time Happy and I took the ferry and we were looking down at this school of fish."
"The stars up there, y'know? I didn't even know what the Milky Way looked like."
"Big. Sure. Big like giants. I didn't want to move, to scare them. Never mind I was on a bloody big smelly noisy ferry. Ha!"
"Small. Right, y'know? Small like nothing mattered, and big like everything did."

There's a beauty to that kind of conversation. There's a magic I can't capture, but of which I wish I could be a part.

Once in a while, once in a rare while, I'll hear some true conversation: people saying what they mean and meaning something important. It frequently comes out in anger. I think it's so hard to say honest and important things sometimes that people need to get angry before they can have the courage to say them. Of course, a lot of things get said in anger just to lash out and hurt the person at whom the anger is directed. Those things are easy to recognize because they're usually followed by uncomfortable silences as the listener deals with hearing those words while the speaker can't believe they were actually stupid enough to say them. It's the ones that get said quietly, usually while the speaker is looking down, that carry the most meaning.
"I won't be strong enough to tell them without you there."
"I'm so scared I haven't been able to sh*t in two days."
"I don't want to go, but I have to."

When I hear part of one of those conversations, I try to listen to something else. They're too intense, too important for some stranger to hear. It's the sound of people being desperate and needy and honest and human, and I prefer to leave them to it.

On a good day, a very good day, some of these kinds of conversations find their way into my writing. Those days are beautiful because then I feel I've captured character with which a reader might really identify.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

And the Winner Is...

Current Reading: The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

Inspirational Quote: ""A jury consists of twelve persons chosen to decide who has the better lawyer." -- Robert Lee Frost

I mentioned J.K. Rowling's case against the administrator of the Harry Potter Lexicon back in May. According the news, judgement was rendered yesterday.

The case hinged on interpretation of "fair use" (that portions of a book may be appropriated for use in a scholarly analysis). The judge ruled that the "Lexicon appropriates too much of Rowling's creative work for its purposes as a reference guide."

Of course, there will be appeals.

Still, it's an interesting outcome, and many authors who lack Ms. Rowling's financial resources will be breathing easier knowing that fans will have a more difficult time misrepresenting the author's work as their own.

Monday, September 8, 2008

100 Classics, Revisited

Current Reading: The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

Inspirational Quote: "A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness." -- Edith Wharton

Science fiction is a fairly young field. I don't think it existed before Verne and Wells. If you include folklore, myth and legend, then Fantasy goes back as far as the human capability for story telling. That's a lot of material to consider when trying to construct a list of classics.

One way to narrow it down is to define what a classic must be. My blog, my rules, so here goes: a classic is a book that has had an impact on the genre, influencing the work that came after it. If it's new, then it's a book that I believe is likely to have that kind of impact. It's also a book that is likely to be read by the next generation.

I have yet to come up with an entire 100 classics for this list, and what appears here is in the order the titles occurred to me, or to others who contributed their thoughts. As before, the ones I've read are in bold:

100 Classics of SF and F

01 The Lord of the Rings - Tolkein
02 The Hobbit - Tolkein
03 Earthsea - LeGuin
04 Neuromancer - Gibson
05 The Time Machine - Wells
06 The Invisible Man - Wells
07 Frankenstein - Shelley
08 20000 Leagues Under the Sea - Verne
09 Dune - Herbert

10 Farenheit 451 - Bradbury
11 2001 - Clarke
12 Foundation - Asimov
13 I Robot - Asimov
14 Rendezvous with Rama - Clarke
15 Discworld - Pratchett
16 Harry Potter - Rowling
17 Lathe of Heaven - LeGuin
18 Left Hand of Darkness - LeGuin
19 War of the Worlds - Wells
20 Childhood's End - Clarke

21 The Songs of Distant Earth - Clarke
22 1984 - Orwell
23 Animal Farm - Orwell
24 A Clockwork Orange - Burgess
25 Fantastic Voyage - Asimov
26 Journey to the Center of the Earth - Verne
27 From the Earth to the Moon - Verne
28 The Island of Dr. Moreau - Wells

29 The Shape of Things to Come - Wells
30 The War of the Worlds - Wells
31 Ringworld - Larry Niven
32 Enemy Mine - Longyear
33 Conan - Howard (I haven't read all of these)
34 Elric - Moorcock (I haven't read all of these)
35 Flowers for Algernon - Keyes
36 Pern - Norton (I haven't read all of these)
37 The Forever War - Haldeman
38 Starship Troopers - Heinlein
39 The Integral Trees - Niven
40 Wheel of Time - Jordan (I haven't read all of these)
41 Daughter of the Empire - Wurts
42 Magician - Feist (I haven't read all of these)
43 Man Plus - Pohl
44 Ender's Game - Card
45 Red/Green/Blue Mars - Robinson (I haven't read all of these)
46 The Demolished Man - Bester
47 A Canticle for Leibowitz - Miller
48 Stranger in a Strange Land - Heinlein
49 The Moon is a Harsh Mistress - Heinlein
50 Stand on Zanzibar - Brunner
51 Riverworld - Farmer
52 Gateway - Pohl
53 Lucifer's Hammer - Niven / Pournelle
54 Hyperion - Simmons
55 Fafhred and the Gray Mouser - Leiber
56 To Say Nothing of the Dog - Willis
57 Alice in Wonderland - Caroll
58 Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Adams
59 Day of the Triffids - Wyndham
60 The Iliad - Homer
61 The Odyssey - Homer
62 Gilgamesh
63 Beowulf
64 His Dark Materials - Pullman
65 The Faerie Queene - Spencer
66 Midsummer Night's Dream - Shakespeare
67 The Metamorphoses - Ovid
68 A Christmas Carol - Dickens

69 Wizard of Oz - Baum

I'm always open for suggestions and disputes on this list.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Monday Musings

Current Reading: The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

Inspirational Quote: "Sometimes I think it is a great mistake to have matter that can think and feel. It complains so. By the same token, though, I suppose that boulders and mountains and moons could be accused of being a little too phlegmatic." -- Kurt Vonnegut

Stuff that's been on my mind lately:

For some reason, I've been obsessing over the Lord of the Rings. I've re-watched the Peter Jackson movies and I've been playing Battle For Middle Earth II instead of... well, everything else. I'm even thinking of digging out and re-reading my vintage 1980 Unwin editions of the books. Unfortunately, that would involve digging into the recesses of my shed, a prospect that would cause Indiana Jones to hang up his whip and stomp on his hat.

I have a black thumb. I figure the only way I could kill all the dandelions in my yard would be to decide to take care of them. However, I seem to have no problem growing grass and a small bush in my eaves troughs.

Recent economic trends have made it apparent that my retirement plan has become Freedom 95.

My daughter has grown out of her toddler bed. My youngest son wears shoes only a size smaller than mine. My oldest son is developing a non-abstract interest in girls and a disturbing habit of thinking his own thoughts (teenagers... sheesh!). They're growing up and I do not recall them asking permission to do so.

This September 2nd, I'll have been married 19 years. Some people take such a long marriage as evidence that we've figured everything out. Nope. We're just fascinated by things we don't understand (eg: each other).

Friday, August 15, 2008

Book Report: The Last Colony, by John Scalzi

The Last Colony is set in the Old Man's War universe. The Hero of Old Man's War comes out of retirement to lead a colony that the Colonial Union is establishing in defiance of the alien alliance called The Conclave. John Perry must keep his colonists alive not just in the face of armed alien opposition, but against the wishes of the CU, which believes the colony would be more use dead than alive.

Alright, I admit it. I'm a Scalzi fan.
I've read four of his books this year, and it's his voice that keeps me coming back. The Last Colony contains the perfect mix of complex plot, interesting characters and wit.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Book Report: Incompetence, by Rob Grant

I enjoyed Grant's take on the Western world's weight obsession (FAT), so I picked this up. It's set in a near-future Europe where you don't have to be capable to be employed. Harry Salt, a detective/spy, investigates the death of his mentor at the hands of a mass-murderer who seems to be one step ahead of him no matter what he does. The comedy comes from his constant encounters with people and institutions who are totally incapable: airline clerks unable to sell tickets, a "sexually inappropriate" hotel greeter, a clerk in an elaborate train station built in the middle of nowhere where no train ever stops, a police captain with serious anger management issues, and a host of others.

Most of the scenes are hilarious as small annoyances grow into massive roadblocks with a series of complications that Seinfeld and David would admire. However, they occur with such frequency that they began to wear on me. They never became predictable, but as they began to unfold, I found myself thinking, "here's another one." and eventually wished the book would just get on with the plot. The plot itself is too simple to justify a book of this length, and serves primarily as a device to introduce Harry's various encounters. That made the reading experience less rewarding than I had hoped.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this, but I didn't love it.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Book Report: Making Money by Terry Pratchett

There are only two authors who work I will acquire without so much as looking at the cover. One is Tim Powers, the other is Terry Pratchett. This latest Discworld novel, the 36th(!) in the series, contains everything that I read Pratchett for: a cunning plot in a world that is an absurd, fantasy funhouse-mirror of our own, and a wicked, pointed, satiric humor. What elevates him above other satirists is his genuine affection for the world and the characters that infest it. In all his work, the villains are sympathetic, misguided, desperate, and their evil is understandable although no less evil for that. His heroes are unlikely, and have to fight their own less-than-heroic nature as often as they have to oppose the villain's schemes.

This time, he focuses again on Moist Von Lipwig, the hero of Going Postal who finds himself thrust into the job of Chairman for a bank on the verge of collapse. The parallels to our current economic times (on both sides of the Atlantic) are many, but our world doesn't have complicating factors like a chief clerk who is a savant with a hidden past that involves custard, a malevolent pair of dentures, a bank owner with a unique approach to an identity crisis, and the imminent arrival of a handful of golems who may be made of gold, or possibly more than a handful.

Pratchett makes beautiful work, and this one goes on my shelf beside every one of his other books. I will take it down again and again, sometimes to read just the occasional passage and sometimes to read the whole thing through again.

Ulysses Rating: 5 - I will read this again and again.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Current Reading: Making Money, by Terry Pratchett

Inspirational Quote: "More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." -- Woody Allen

Interesting discussion over on agent Nathan Bransford's blog. Could you maintain a book-a-year pace while keeping the work fresh, interesting and good? In one of the comments, someone mentions Stephen King saying that if you take longer than about 18 months to write a book, you're goofing around.

So I find myself wondering, can I write a book in a year? Never mind maintaining that output. Can I even achieve it?

My "Magnus Somnium" has taken me somewhat close to eight years and I'm only about 2/3 of the way through the second draft. I've been struggling with writing even one word on it for about three months now (although I've been able to complete other work in that time). Am I tired of it? Am I stalling? Is there a psychologist in the house?

I had decided to give it up, to consign it to the bit-bucket, there to await resurrection come judgement day. I've started a new work, something a little zen... but with demons and blood and stuff, of course. It's fun. It's fresh. The ideas for it are coming from a mind eight years more mature than the ideas that form the core of the Magnus.

But recently I attended a meeting of my face-to-face writer's group where one of the chapters of the Magnus Somnium was dissected. The way they discussed it reminded me just why I loved it, and how much I wanted them to read the rest of it, and how much I wanted there to be a "rest of it" for them to read.

Now I'm torn. I keep looking at the Magnus and wondering if I should go back and face the terrible uphill battle to completion. I keep wondering, am I making a mistake abandoning it? Am I making a mistake not abandoning it? Thus, I feel the quote above is appropriate.

When do you abandon a work? Are you ever certain you're doing the right thing, or is it only the passage of time that gives you perspective enough for certainty?

And, while I'm asking questions, "How is it possible to find meaning in a finite world, given my waist and shirt size?" (Allan Stewart Konigsberg again).

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

100 Classics

Current Reading: Making Money, by Terry Pratchett

Inspirational Quote: "A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say." -- Italo Calvino

I picked this up over at Moonrat's place. I try to be well read, and I've often wondered how many classics I have yet to read.

Those I've read are in bold.

So here we go...

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill
75 Ulysses - James Joyce [Yeah, I know... ironic, isn't it?]
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte's Web - EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Hmm. An even 22%. Of course, I question the list (where's Frankenstein? H.G. Wells? Jules Verne?), but everything has to start somewhere.

I wonder if there exists a list of 100 classics of SF/F? And then of course, you have to get into arguments about the criteria for a classic...

On the off chance that someone's actually reading these posts, leave your suggestions for classics of F and SF in the comments below.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Book Report: The Return of Santiago, by Mike Resnick

I read Santiago, the prequel to this book, more than a decade ago. I found it charming: a retelling of western-style myths in a science-fiction setting unified by a search for the most mythical of all characters.

The Return of Santiago is more of the same, although the circumstances have changed and the story is different. Santiago is dead, so a back-world thief sets out to recreate him. Along the way he deals with characters as eccentric and larger-than-life as anything Santiago ever encountered.

In addition to being as entertaining and filled with action as an early John Wayne movie, it also deals with some weighty thoughts: balancing the benefits of civilization against the dangers of government, the pressures of social evolution producing the people that are needed at the time that they are needed, and the surprising ways that human beings can sometimes become the things that they try so hard to find in others.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.

Book Report: Fat, by Rob Grant

The last time I read something by Rob Grant, he was one half of Grant Naylor, the author of Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers. That was some time ago, and I confess that I found the book sadly deficient compared to the television show. When my wife brought home "Fat," I was a little hesitant. What I got was not what I expected, but it was great.

The story is an excellent example of not one, but three independent and wholly unreliable narrators. We have a fat television chef with an anger problem, a shallow and rakish PR man, and a teenaged anorexic girl obsessed with the lead singer of a boy band. This last is particularly effective, so much so that I had difficulty reading the sections that covered her point of view. The tone for those sections is juvenile and flippant and the contrast with the horror her life has become makes her situation incredibly poignant.

It is funny without being a comedy. It deals with the fallout from science, but it is not science fiction. It is a work of fiction with all the weight and import of a Socratic Dialog.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved it.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Problem with Ratings

Current Reading: Fat, by Rob Grant

Inspirational Quote: "If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster." -- Isaac Asimov

I was reminded recently about the subjectivity of art. What I love, you may hate. So what does it mean when I give a book from the reading list a 5 or a 0? Only that the rating was my response to the book. Mine. That's all.

Is it good? Is it bad? I don't know. I'm just one guy with a set of tastes so built in that sometimes I make the mistake of assuming that they are shared by everyone. However, I've learned a great deal about publishing in the last year and the most important lesson has been that publishing is a labor of love for the people in it. They love books. I have learned that every single book on the shelves is there because people loved it. Not just the author (vanity presses do not count as publishers), but the agent, the editor, the bookstore purchasing department... a whole host of people loved that book. They loved it enough to push it through a process that accepts only the rare manuscript.

Given that, it is pure folly to look at a work and pronounce it unredeemable. The worst I can do is read it through and pronounce it "Not for me."

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Measuring Reads

Current Reading: Fat, by Rob Grant

Inspirational Quote: "All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand." -- George Orwell

I've been looking over my posts to this point. To read the Book Reports, you'd think I'd never read a bad book. That doesn't say much for my critical faculties. I have read bad books, but not recently and not since I started blogging. I guess I've been lucky.

So, since my prose tends toward the flattering, I've decided to use a rating system to illustrate my response to the book.

  1. I couldn't finish this.
  2. I finished this, but I didn't enjoy it.
  3. I had a tough go.
  4. I enjoyed this.
  5. I loved this.
  6. I'll read this again and again.

The ratings for everything I've read are now in the Reading List in the left sidebar.

Book Report: The Ghost Brigades, by John Scalzi

While I read Old Man's War, I would occasionally read out passages to my wife, who shares much of my taste in reading. Once I finished, I read the preview in the back for Ghost Brigades. It looked good, but I'd exhausted my trips to the bookstore for a while and so hunted up another book that was already lying around the house.

Then Father's Day arrived, and I woke up to breakfast in bed (yay!) and a copy of Ghost Brigades (YAY!). I expected a sequel to Old Man's War, and was surprised when only one character from that book showed up in this one. This was less a sequel and more an independent story set in the same universe as the first, much as Pratchett's Discworld books read well independently and even better as parts of a whole. I was a little put off by this, but even so it only took a chapter to entrance me as thoroughly as Old Man's War had. Once again, great action serves only as a frontispiece for a story about personal choice in a setting rich with military and political intrigue.

I couldn't put it down, finishing the last page only two days (each fully packed with other activities) later.

There is another sequel, and I look forward to it.