Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Crunchy Dragon!

Few people realize that inducing fear and symbolizing Greed and Satan - or selling t-shirts at Loscon, for that matter - are NOT a dragon's main purposes in Life. No, it's something else. Something far more important.


Dragon flying in the movie show,
Crunchy dragon. Crunchy dragon.

Got a big house and a stereo,
Crunchy dragon. Crunchy dragon.

Got long, long legs, big chest too.
Drumsticks, wishbone, white meat, stew.
Can up and freeze what I can't use.
Crunchy dragon. Crunchy dragon.

A-K-4-7 the dragon. YUMMM.

(Thank you, Eddie Murphy, as always.)

The Left Evolves, the Right Declines, Average US Intelligence Holds Steady

According to the latest Pew Research poll, acceptance* of the Theory of Evolution in the US has remained steady overall for the last four years. However, it has declined among Republicans, from 54% to 43%.

Now, a 60% acceptance rate for a fact of nature is nothing to brag about - it shows that epic levels of denialism and scientific illiteracy abound in our country. That being said, I am encouraged by one thing: If the overall level holds steady, but denialism increased among the GOP, that means that the rest of us are getting smarter. Finally.

*I say "acceptance," not "belief," because belief implies that evolution is an article of faith. It isn't. Instead, it is by far the best explanation for a staggeringly, definitively enormous collection of natural evidence. One "believes" in evolution in pretty much the same way one would "believe" in gravity.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Jesus and Satan Build Statues in Oklahoma

For anyone who believes in religious freedom and the separation of Church and State - I do! I do!  - this is a glorious way to fight the battle. (The Oklahoma legislature allowed a Ten Commandments statue - which is explicitly religious - to be erected on government grounds. And Satanists have argued that they deserve time for their religion too, so they've petitioned to place a Satanic display right next to it.)

I would say this is at least as effective - and a LOT faster - than suing for the removal of religious icons from public grounds.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Swords for Higher Education!

In the US, all you get for your PhD is a tassel and a parchment. But in Finland, you get a HAT...and a SWORD.

Totes doing my doctorate in Helsinki.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Why It Pays to Pay People to Watch TV Shows Like "Almost Human"

Last post, I panned Almost Human for a couple of reasons - mostly because it uses expired story lines and doesn't consider the implications of the technology it's pushing (in this case, androids and new drugs).

But Rob Bricken over at io9.com, who is paid to watch this stuff, was much more thorough, and much more outraged, in his dissection of AH. I recommend his post.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Almost Human...And Now I've Changed My Mind

Just saw my second episode of Almost Human, and I was able to spot the episode's Big Bad as soon as he showed up. Of course it's always hard to do a "mystery villain" in a single episode on a series, because the odds are that any new character who shows up with a lot of power and respectability will be the bad guy.

That said, the twist-that-was-too-obvious-to-be-a-twist highlights a major failing of the show: The two episodes that I've seen both featured recycled cop/action story lines we've seen dozens of times before. It's as though the showrunners think that all they need to make these stories fresh is to sprinkle a little sci-fi on them.

This episode, for instance, features a new street drug, "the bends," that looks a bit like anti-freeze. Its properties? It's hard to make and super-addictive. Nothing else. (So why the concern? We already have drugs that are super-addictive and easy to make, no?) And the robots? They're just like people, except that they're stronger and you can order them around and treat them like crap. Hell, even the visuals are recycled - check out the umbrellas with the glowing central tubes, straight out of Bladerunner.

It's not too late for the show - if it shows us how society has changed thanks to new technologies. (What have "synthetics" done to prostitution and human trafficking? What about fraud? Identity theft? New forms of surveillance?) But as long as the future is treated as just the present, but with shinier toys, Almost Human will disappoint.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

One of My Short Stories Just Came Out

It's called The Saturday Dance, and it appears in the November 2013 issue of Lore magazine.

Buy it today, you little F/SF monsters!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Play the Critic Game!

As some of you have guessed by now, one of my favorite posts is "Why Is That So Good?" I take a favorite scene - usually in a book, but occasionally from a movie, play, what have you - and try to understand exactly why it sticks in my mind.

But here's the good news - I'M NOT THE ONLY ONE WHO CAN DO THIS. In fact, I invite you all to try it yourselves. Here's how:

  • Sit down and close your eyes. (This is optional, but it can help.)
  • Think of your favorite scene - the one whose lines you keep repeating; the one you can hear or see in your mind.
  • Ask yourself, seriously - "Why is that so good?" 
    • Is it something in the scene itself? Maybe it's contextual - the scene is the culmination of an arc in the story, or a running gag. ("Looks like I picked the wrong week to give up sniffing glue!")
    • Maybe it's about character. Remember Lawrence of Arabia, with Anthony Quinn shouting "But I am poor, because I am a river to my people!"
    • Maybe it's entirely about the writing. ("But look around you. Death and Light are everywhere, and they begin, end, strive, attend, into and upon the dream of the Nameless that is the world, burning words within Samsara, perhaps to create a thing of beauty...")
    • Maybe it's a twist, or a red herring.
    • Maybe it's planting and payoff.
    • Maybe - most likely - it's none of these but something entirely different.
Whatever it is, YOU get to decide. Think about it. Figure it out. And then drop me a line and let me know!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Almost Human

Just saw my first episode. "Did I like it?" you ask. Well-


Of course, I firmly believe that Isaac Asimov should be acknowledged in the credits as the author of Caves of Steel, but since it is impossible to copyright a "mere idea," I'll move on from that. I will say that although Karl Urban is getting the leading man buzz and the fan-girl swoonage, the real star to me seems to be Michael Ealy, who plays the android Dorian.

Aside from that - the story wasn't remarkable, but the show was tightly put together, and there weren't too many glaring gaps of logic and characterization >cough<Defiance>cough<. Also, they have the terrific Lili Taylor as the captain, and I could watch her read the phone book (which is a little more dramatic than what they've given her in this episode).

So - not mind-blowing, but worth following for a while to see where it goes.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Some Tired Thoughts on a Beloved President

John F. Kennedy died before I was born. He was president for three years. His presidency included one profound win (the Cuban Missile Crisis), one inspiring side show (the Space Race) one disaster (the Bay of Pigs, which arguably precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis) and the start of US involvement in Vietnam. And now I'm tired.

Tired of the relentless coverage of every aspect of the Kennedy family. Tired of the annual chewing and re-chewing of his life and times. Tired of the Kennedy veneration; tired of the Kennedy hatred. Tired of the assumption that this was in some way the most important event of the 20th century. Tired of the conspiracy theories. Tired of the leering docudramas about JFK and Marilyn Monroe, JFK and Marlene Dietrich, "Camelot," Bobby, Jack, Jackie, Teddy, Ted, the Kennedy curse, etcetera, etcetera, ad nauseam. It's done. If there was a conspiracy, good luck, you've had 50 years to prove it and it hasn't happened yet. The women he slept with are now dust. His policies have all played out in full, in some cases well, in others poorly.

Mr. & Mrs. Baby Boomer, please let him go.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mentat Morning Mantra

It is by caffeine alone that I set my mind in motion.
It is by the juice of the bean that thoughts acquire speed, the teeth acquire stain, the stain becomes a turn-off.
It is by caffeine alone that I set my mind in motion.

Frank Herbert, fellow coffee drinker.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

My brother just told me that-

-my blog sounds like I'm an old man muttering "Get off my lawn, you kids!"

I'm at peace with that.


Monday, November 18, 2013

AoS - It Is Finished

Well, gang - I've finished watching the "The Hub," the most recent episode of Agents of Shield. So I've seen five episodes. And unfortunately, I think that's about it. The problems haven't been fixed.  

If it had been anyone else's name on the show, I would probably have given it a pass from the start. But because it was Joss Whedon, I stuck with it. And now I'm a little disappointed. Ah, well. It can't all be Buffy, I guess.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Prank Abercrombie & Fitch? Hell, Yes

If you're reading this blog, the odds are better than 50% that at some point in your childhood, you were the one on the outside looking in - nerd, dork, geek, loner, chubster, etc. etc. If that's the case, then Abercrombie & Fitch doesn't want you wearing their clothes. The company has made some amazingly condescending statements, and one fellow got fed up with it.

Watch his response here, and consider it for yourself.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Franz Boas, Badass

Franz Boas is kind of a hero. He's "the father of American anthropology," even though he was born and raised in Germany. When he began studying, the field was filled with grandiose, unscientific theories that mostly promoted the idea that European Man was the pinnacle of human evolution. Boas demanded an empirical approach, free of value judgments promoting one culture over another, and fought his entire life against racism - especially the "scientific racism" that helped promote Nazism. He pioneered research techniques like extended residence with subjects and developing social connections with them, including learning their languages. If you've ever visited the Hall of the Northwest Coast Indians at the American Museum of Natural History, you've seen his work - a series of exhibits devoted to those tribes, without any implication there is a progression from them to a "more evolved" White Man.

He was also kind of a badass, who endured nightmare conditions in Greenland, trekked to the Pacific Northwest to hang with the Kwakiutl, and openly opposed Fascism and Nazism until his death at 84, in 1942.

In nerd F/SF terms, he embodies the kind of empirical, detail-based attitude we should have when portraying alien cultures. But my affection is based on this photo of a serious Berlin-trained scholar working to get a museum exhibit on initiation dances just right.

Excellent Travel Posters

What can I say?


Friday, November 1, 2013

Interstellar trade, Paul Krugman, Caleb Scharf

There's a hoary old trope in space opera - the great galactic merchant family. Their treasure ships sail from world to world, laden with water, oxygen, precious ores and gems. It's a setting that's always bugged me. Let's face it, if you want water, you'll find it in your own star system a thousand times more cheaply than important across light years from somewhere else. Ditto for gold, gems, rare earths, uranium, plutonium, thorium, platinum, etc. etc. etc.

So what would be worth transporting? And how would that be affected by different transport technologies? Well, Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman and astronomer Caleb Scharf have both considered this very SF problem. Check them out.


Back from surgery

So, if you were wondering about the hiatus, I had a teeny tiny operation. But I'm back (as in flat on my) and you may anticipate some more posts relatively soon…assuming that you want them.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Pt. 3 "Relationships"

[SPOILER - ish.] So…the plots have tightened up. And the team member who betrays the others - well, we saw it coming, but it still made sense, and it had a nice "real world" ambiguity. The team's reactions to the traitor in their midst was also nicely low-key.

But the things that have bugged me since the beginning - the choice of team members, the lack of depth in their characters, the lack of intra-team interaction between characters like Ward, Fitz and Simmons - none of these have really been addressed.

Now let's do something really, really unfair: Let's compare Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As in Buffy, you have a team of young pretties, accompanied by a middle-aged "mommy" and "daddy": May and Coulson in AoS, Giles and Joyce in BtVS. In AoS it's more about tech than magic; and the regulars are less likely to have special powers. There are a lot of other differences - Coulson's team has a much-more nuanced mission than Buffy and the Scoobies (hide the secrets vs. kill the evil); the contrast between the mundane and the horrible that formed such a huge part of BtVS isn't there; AoS is not a show about teen-agers growing up (what it IS about I'm not sure yet, and I suspect the Whedonites aren't either); and so on.

But there's a huge technical difference between the two, something overlooked that - considering how sharp Whedon usually is about these things - really surprised me. It's this:

The AoS regulars don't have real relationships with one another. BtVS started off with a double love triangle: Xander loved Buffy; Willow loved Xander; Buffy loved Angel; Angel couldn't love Buffy. Giles struggled to assert his authority over Buffy; Buffy rebelled. Buffy struggled to keep her second life secret from Joyce; Joyce used obliviousness to deal with a truth that was too much to handle. Each main character had a unique relationship with every other main character. Does AoS have anything remotely comparable?

Characters are defined by relationships; without constant relationships, the characters are flat at best. What kind of relationships do Fitz and Simmons have with the others? For that matter, what are they to each other? (And no looking at the online bios; that's cheating.) Besides teaching Skye, what kind of relationship does Ward have with her? Or what does May think of Fitz/Simmons? Big blanks to all of those questions. Maybe, after the last episode, you could sort of make a point about Skye looking for a home, and finding it in the heart of the organization that took her parents away…maybe. But that's a pretty late reveal, and nothing else has really dealt with character at all.



Saturday, October 19, 2013

You all saw an ST:TOS "after"-

-right here.

Here's a "before."

As before, these Star Trek photos courtesy of the Internet presence of the inimitable George Takei. In case you were wondering, the gent in the brown leisure suit is Gene Roddenberry his own self.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Week by Week Coverage!

Well, y'all know I've been rather tepid about AoS. So far, Coulson is the only character I've found compelling, and I think they're already placing too much story burden on his thin, desk-bound shoulders. (I say "desk-bound" advisedly. Part of Coulson's charm has been that actor Clark Gregg projected this wonderful, nebbishy, bureaucratic aura that was the perfect foil to the grandiosity of Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and the rest. He was the very human onion in the superman stew. Now they're trying to give him a James Bond backstory - like his liaison with the hot Peruvian agent who betrays him - and it sits uneasily on him.)

Anyway, this week's episode- "Eye-Spy"- was pretty good. It was tight, well-plotted, with some clever twists. But...it didn't go any farther in making me want to know the other characters. Until/unless the show finds a way to make that happen, it will continue to sputter.

To do that:

1. I have to be able to have faith that Coulson's motivations in recruiting this crew will become clear and make sense.

2. I will have to see something more interesting in the team than a handsome James Bond loner, a streetwise hacker grrrl, two lab geeks and a martial arts expert.

Oh...and P.S.-

Are we going to get f*****g subtitles for Fitz and Simmons? Maybe they build a translator drone so that everyone else can understand them?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

For All My Fellow ST:TOS Fans Out There-

Hope I look that good when I'm up there. If you're like me, you're smiling right now.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Fans Have Turned

Remember how last week I was talking about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.? And remember I was saying that Marvel and Disney/ABC knew a lot about fan service? And that this was nice, but it wouldn't save them if they put out disappointing product?

Well, I guess I'm kind of a prophet.

If you check out the forums over at io9.com, the fans have turned against Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Google "agents of shield discussion"and the top entry after the "news" search is "4 Ways to Improve 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' - Screen Rant." If you sow the wind, you'll reap the whirlwind - so you better have a windmill handy, not a straw house.

PS - One of the scariest things (for the producers) is that the fans are talking casting. That means the writing or directing is flawed, but they can't quite figure that out, so they blame the actors.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Sympathetic Magic...in the WWE

So those of us who write fantasy know that magic is the defining element. (Maybe you can write fantasy without it, but it ain't easy.) Which means that establishing how magic works in your story is crucial.

Well, to show a terrific example of sympathetic magic in the real world, watch this clip from World Wrestling Entertainment.

Yep, that's right.


Friday, October 4, 2013

Lon Casler Bixby

So my buddy Lon is a pretty great photographer. If any of y'all are interested in his images, he's here at http://www.neoichi.com. And he's got merch here at http://society6.com/LonCaslerBixby. For those of you with books coming out this year, seriously take a look at his work. Can you say "cover art"?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Lovin' the George

Oh, my! George Takei is even better at Interwebz than he is at catchphrases.
I'm officially digging him via Twitter and Facebook.
And yes, I know I'm late on the ball by years. But better late than never.

He's selling some Takei swag, too. You know what would be awesome? An official George Takei fencing foil.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Embraced by the Cool

When it comes to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., ABC and Marvel clearly understand fan service. They know all the notes to hit, from appearances at Comic-Con to tweeting about Easter Eggs at the end of the credits. And thanks to Joss Whedon - both his career in general and the job he did on The Avengers - they have a huge - nay, heroic - amount of fan goodwill to play with. So, two things to think about:

1. ABC/Disney and Marvel have achieved full penetration of SF fan culture. I'm conflicted. Back in the 20th Century, fan culture was a ghetto. It was the ultimate, genuine counterculture - because it was considered "loser" culture by so many. That meant a lot of negatives, of course, but it did allow some positives to flourish: a defiance of conformity; an interest in the truly original, which is often less comfortable and attractive than what the mainstream thinks is original; a love of ideas, even when their presentation was clunky and awkward (think '70s sci fi movies...so much spandex!)

Today's fan culture is mainstream culture. It is fully engulfed, er, embraced by "cool kids," movie producers and corporate marketing executives. To some old-time fans, this is vindication: At last everyone else finally understands what we've known from the beginning! This stuff is legit and it's cool! But being embraced by the cool is like being turned by a vampire: Sure, you get immortality and broody good looks and really great lighting (at least, if you're a CW vampire). But you are different from what you were...and worse, you are under the influence of the vampire that turned you.

Go to a convention. Half of them are now "media" conventions - not only are they not about science fiction, you'll be hard-pressed to find attendees who read books for fun. You'll find costumers (excuse me, cosplayers) who are more interested in showing off their hot bodies than in the costumes themselves - the "sexy kitten Halloween costume" effect. (Not that I have anything against hot bodies, mind you. In fact- okay, let's let that critique slide. I am a visual creature. Sigh.) Their discourse isn't controlled by media corporations, but it's certainly shaped by them. Now corporations set the fan agenda, not the other way around.

2. But marketing can only go so far. Marketing is a craft, not a science. The best campaign in the world can fail without a good product behind it. I have to admit, I'm always going to hope for and expect the best from Joss Whedon. He isn't a demigod, but he's smart and funny and one of the few cinema storytellers out there who seems willing to push hard for something good. Even his failures are usually interesting. That said, the AoS pilot wasn't mind-blowing; I'm hoping that it gets better.

(N.B. Since the Alliance ABC/Disney is a litigious corporate giant, I won't post any images from AoS. You understand.)

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Eye of Argon!

I don't think this is a bad drawing,
but the author would have liked it.
Some of you young whippersnappers might not know about it. Back in 1970 (post-Flood, pre-Watergate) an eager sixteen year old fan published his first fantasy novella in an Ozark fanzine.  It was bad.

Really bad.

Like, hilariously bad.

Plan 9 From Outer Space bad.

It soon achieved immortality on the SF convention circuit, where group readings became de rigeur.

You can find it here.

Why do I suggest this, besides some innocent merriment? Because it's a superb category of mistakes. Not just in using the wrong word, or the wrong punctuation, but the wrong metaphor, the wrong simile, the wrong construction, and on, and on - it's fractally wrong, wrong on every level.

If you read this and don't see the wrong, then you've a ways to go in your own writing quest, my fellow scribe.


Monday, September 23, 2013

FeatherBed® Is Here!

Information architects! UX professionals! Vested corporate clockwatchers! Do you find yourself underutilized at work? Bored? Even comatose?

Then FEATHERBED is for you.

At FeatherBed, we can OUTSOURCE YOUR DOWNTIME, leaving you free to walk in the park, grab a beer, even get reacquainted with your significant other. While you're in the real world, we will send a certified and licensed FEATHERBEDDER® to occupy your workstation, complain about your local sports team, and conceal NSFW material on your computer terminal.

All our FeatherBedders are dressed in appropriate work clothes and schooled in corporate etiquette (if you are an IT specialist, more schooled in etiquette). As liberal arts graduates in an economic downturn, they are guaranteed to be 100% happy to be at your desk, and 100% unable to take your job from you.

Why should you fight boredom-coma, be forced to play in a sports fantasy league, or laugh one more time at your boss's retelling of Conan O'Brien's monologue? Let FeatherBed take the weight off your shoulders!

FeatherBed - for the rest of your life.

I Just Saw History's Creepiest Romantic Comedy on Cable

Rumor Has It.

It was made about eight years ago, with an all-star cast and crew: Jennifer Aniston, Mark Ruffalo, Kevin Costner, Shirley Maclaine. Rob Reiner directed it. But A-Listers notwithstanding....

Creepiest. Film. Ever.

The story was serious, psychologically incestuous dysfunction treated as a lighthearted romp,  as a "cute confused girl realizes she made a mistake, and everything turns out all right in the end." Made me want to take a shower afterward.

Middle Age-

-is Nature's way of saying "I want to see someone younger."

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Top Seven Places To Find Cthulhu

1. On the Internet, of course. That is not dead which can Googled be...
2. Oklahoma City, OK
3. Cthulhu on eBay
4. Cambridge University - We thought those Brits looked kinda fishy:
5. Providence, RI - Of course - Lovecraft's hometown. The Necronomicon is held there every August.
6. Salem, MA - the witchy model for Lovecraft's infamous Arkham, MA.
7. Goose Island Brewpub, Chicago - for its limited run Cthulhu beer.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Secondary Flowers

What is it about secondary-world fantasy that makes people write such stilted, archaic prose? It seems that the cruder the technology, the more ornate the language becomes. It's almost as if some writers imagine that they're writing medieval chronicles...without ever considering that maybe, just maybe, those chronicles sounded fresh and contemporary to 12th Century ears. Kind of like this:

In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning,. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the wheel of time. But it was a beginning. Born below the ever cloud-capped peaks that gave the mountains their name. the wind blew east, out across the sand hills, once the shore of a great ocean, before the Breaking of the World. Down it flailed into the Two Rivers, into the Tangled forest called the Westwood, and beat at two men walking with a cart and horse down the rock-strewn track called the Quarry Road. For all that spring should have come a good month since, the wind carried an icy chill as if it would rather bear snow. (Richard Jordan)

Or, if you don't have a lot of time: Two men walked down the Quarry Road. An icy wind blew on them.

For the record, I've got no problem with ornate language. I'm a writer, damn it. I love words; Roger Zelazny is a god to me, and Ray Bradbury at least a saint. What I have a problem with is language that's flowery to no purpose. So compare that flowery to this flowery:

The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays, many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage, or, looking for adventure, to wander working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. Of these, some say the greatest, and surely the greatest voyager, was the man called Sparrowhawk, who in his day became both dragonlord and Archmage. His life is told of in the Deed of Ged and in many songs, but this is a tale of the time before his fame, before the songs were made. (Ursula LeGuin)

Actually, it isn't even flowery; it just has that incantatory music that Jordan tries for, and fails to achieve. One line less, too...but how much more solid detail it conveys. You learn about the main character; you learn about his home island; you learn that his world is filled with islands, oceans, and magic; and all in one line less...

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Awful Possibility That Fantasy Is Dying

I know, how can I say that? Bookstores (the ones that are left, anyway) are practically vomiting fantasies, from Twilight to Potter to Tramp-Stamped Werewolves in Heat (I swear I'm going to write that one, so watch out) to the latest Gaiman to the latest angel/demon/ghost/zombie/fanwank.

But the number of genuinely shocking ideas in fantasy is plummeting...at least the ratio of ideas to verbiage is plummeting.

There was a time, back in the 1980s, when the very notion of contemporary fantasy - magic in the here and now, as opposed to some alternate world - was mind-blowingly original. After decades of nothing but Tolkien and Hildebrand, Conan and Frazetta, Emma Bull had written The War for the Oaks, and Matt Wagner had published the first (and best) Mage serial.

Then Tim Powers and James Blaylock came up with their unique takes on magic. (Powers practically invented a new system for each of his novels.) Neil Gaiman started The Sandman, which, in addition to reviving Arabian Nights-style meta-stories, presented a cosmos that was practically animist in its reliance on embodied universal forces. Alan Moore took the supernatural plot devices in comic books and turned them into an entire mythos of its own, and Jamie Delano and John Ridgeway extended his vision into a critique of Thatcher's England with Hellblazer. (For those unfamiliar with that first grotesque year of John Constantine, run out and buy Original Sins, which proves that those first issues still carry some of their punch, a quarter of a century later.)

All of these were filled with brilliant ideas...so brilliant, they're still being copied, twenty years later, over and over and over, and each duplication is a little more faded, until books like My Demon Lover or Earth Angel or Tooth and Claw (and no, these aren't real books, I hope) crowd the F/SF shelves. They depend on the power of their central ideas for a lift - borrowed interest - and those ideas aren't original any more. They've aged from originality to convention to clichĂ© to...well, frankly, fetish. ("Paranormal romance: It's the soft-core porn with extra bite!")

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Why the Original "Star Trek" Was So Much Better Than the Subsequent Series

The Mission Log Podcast has uncovered this third-season memo from Gene Roddenberry to the writers about maintaining and enhancing the characters and their relationships. Basically, everything he suggests is the OPPOSITE of what they did in The Next Generation. They ENCOURAGED inter-character conflict. They demanded-

Well, read it for yourself.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

And Now a Word From Our Sponsor

Last night, God spake unto me.

And lo, the Lord God looked not at all well. Truly, the Agita of the Lord waxed exceedingly great, and the winepress of His Annoyance was full.

"Ted," he said unto me.

"Here I am," I said.

"Ted," said the Lord, "take these Christians, these Focus on the Family Christians, these Christians who claim to speak for Me-"

"I know them, Lord," said I, "for they Tebow me around and about, even here in New York, Thy city, and the place where Thou comest to not be treated as a celebrity."

"Interrupt not the Lord Almighty," said God. "Now in those days - last Saturday, three p.m. - I was accosted by one of them, who said that he 'wanted to share his faith with Me.'"

"And did he not know Thee, O Lord?" I said, in great astonishment and amusement of the spirit. 

"Nay, for I looked too Jewish. And he then told me of the Word of God. But it was not My Word. It was but the translation of a translation at second hand, with much extra material by an unemployed rabbi of Tarsus."

"Yea, O Lord," said I. "Even here, in Thy city, we must endure these proof-texters who preach in Thy name and proclaim miracles and revelations."

"Well, tell them to stop," said God. "If they don't, I will share My faith with them."

"I hear, O Lord," said I. "I beg thee, don't share too hard."

"Not making any promises," said God. "Not this time."

And there was a rumble of thunder as He departed.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Zach Braff, Kickstarter, and Tourist Swag

I'm a Scrubs fan. I saw the first few episodes, didn't get the conjunction of gore and sitcom, but then I rapidly got hooked...by the actors (especially John C. Mcginley as Cox) and even more by the writers. The writing was just loopy. I loved it. So when I see Zach Braff, star of the show, doing something, it is admittedly through a pair of Scrubs-colored glasses.

However, things changed when I found out that Zach was financing his second movie via Kickstarter.

Kickstarter is great. It allows thousands of struggling artists to disintermediate their work, step around the gatekeepers - the agents, producers, label owners, gallery owners, curators, editors - and take things directly to an audience. (And the same for inventors, designers, performers, etc.)

But here's the thing: Zach Braff isn't a struggling artist. He was the star of a hit sitcom for nine years, a sitcom that's still in syndication. He's a multimillionaire. And even more important than that, in Hollywood terms, is that he's legit. He's one of the handful of actors and filmmakers who actually make a living in this industry and can get financing. So if he can get financing from the usual sources, why's he going to Kickstarter?

Other folks have made that point - here and here, for instance. But what cemented my opinion was going to the website, and seeing what people got for the donations. They got swag.

In the entertainment industry, swag has some very specialized meanings. There are at least two tiers of swag:

Celebrity Swag 
1. Celebrity swag. This is the stuff that stars and heavy hitters get from companies looking for publicity. It's pricey - trips to Hawaii, $400 Tom Ford sunglasses, $200 digicams, $500 days at exclusive (or wannabe exclusive) spas, and so on. It goes into the gift bags at Oscar night, and populates the skyboxes of top producers at Universal.

2. Tourist swag. Director's chairs, crew jackets, production scripts, signed posters, etc. etc. This is the stuff that people who work on the movies get for free. And the people who work in the studios get for free. And the people who work for the catering companies get for free. And then they turn around and sell it to souvenir stores on Hollywood Boulevard that mark it up 300% for the tourist trade. (Don't get the idea from this that these swag recipients are rolling in dough, BTW; to the studios, producers and celebrities, they are the working poor, and the swag is the closest thing Hollywood has to food stamps.)

To put this in perspective, my closet holds something that's the pinnacle of tourist swag, something that's pricey enough to occupy the no-man's land between the two tiers - in other words, something that has value outside of its connection to Hollywood. It's a leather bomber jacket with the MGM logo (but it would look better without it). My dad got it for free from an MGM exec when their companies were doing business. Then he gave it to me. (Thanks, Dad!)
Tourist Swag

Guess which tier Zach's offering? That's right. Not even bomber jackets for his funders.

Even worse - and this really did get my goat - is that serious fans get the "opportunity" to be an extra in his movie. And it will only cost $2,500...instead of Braff paying the fan the $80 a day plus meal that an extra is entitled to.

Let's turn this around a little more. Most filmmakers on Kickstarter can't find any other funders for their projects because legit financiers can't see any profit potential. But Braff's film, budgeted at $2 million, is actually a damned good bet for profit. His last film, Garden State, got theatrical release and showed up on premium cable channels. Its budget was $2.5 million. It was purchased by Miramax for $5 million. And it went on to earn more than $35 million worldwide. Does anyone doubt that another low-budget indie-esque film by Braff will make a profit? (The film will, at the very least, be professionally done. That, plus Braff's name recognition, pretty much guarantees TV sales.)

If Braff takes money from traditional investors, he will have to pay them from profits. If he uses his own money, the risk is all his (maybe the production gets shut down, there's an earthquake, Café Hugo discontinues its business brunches, something). But if he gets it from Kickstarter, he keeps all the profit, and the fans take the loss. Nice work, if you can get it.

Now, a laissez-faire capitalist might say that this is a contract freely entered into by Braff and the fans. True, but there is what an economist would call "information asymmetry" - since the fans probably haven't worked in the industry, they don't have the context to appreciate just how little Braff is offering them, and how much he stands to gain.

To be fair, Braff may believe his stated purpose for using Kickstarter - that he doesn't want to make the compromises in his film that traditional financiers might demand. And maybe the real motivator for the Kickstarter funders is that they truly want to be part of the filmmaking experience. If that's the case, let Braff make this promise to his Kickstarter funders: That if the movie makes any profit, they will be the first to receive a return - even if it's only a repayment of their money. Then the funders will really be part of the action...they'll be producers.

PS - You remember I mentioned director's chairs as tourist swag? Well, it turns out that for $75 they're offering Kickstarter funders the chair back with the movie's name and logo. Not the entire chair, mind you. Just the canvas back.

For My Fellow Simon Pegg Fans-

-a classic prank on the set of Star Trek: Into Darkness.


My favorite moment? When they get Zach Quinto, and he joins the gag.

Monday, September 2, 2013

More Sad News

Fred Pohl center, with Donald Wolheim
and John Michel in 1938
Frederick Pohl, one of science fiction's greats, has passed away. He was 94, and one of the genre's most influential fans as well as one of its great writers. He cofounded the Futurians, a New York SF fan society that had a big influence on the field during its "Golden Age" of the '30s and '40s. While with the Futurians, Pohl developed friendships with Isaac Asimov, Donald A. Wolheim and others who would be important editors and writers.

A Young Communist in the '30s because of the Communist stands on racism, unions, and Fascism, Pohl broke with the Communist Party when Stalin signed a peace pact with Hitler in 1939. He served in the army overseas from 1943 to 1945 as a weatherman. He was married five times and had four children.

Pohl published one of the genre's first fanzines, Mind of Man, and was the editor of Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories. He worked as a copywriter, a copy editor, and a literary agent - on of SF's first. When he wrote on his own, he was famous for novels like the Heechee Saga (one of SF's great "enigma tales") and Man Plus, and for his collaborations with Jack Williamson and CM Kornbluth. (The Kornbluth collaboration created some of SF's first great satirical works, like The Space Merchants and Gladiator-at-Law.)

He also worked as an acquiring editor for Bantam Books, which allowed him to bring forward works that would become classics, like Samuel R. Delany's Dahlgren. He won the National Book Award, the Hugo and the Nebula, and for a while was the Encyclopedia Britannica's official authority on the Roman Emperor Tiberius.

Ad astra, Fred.

The Castle Drinking Game!

So you know I've been bagging a little (affectionately!) on the detective show Castle for not getting the New York details right.

So I now propose the CASTLE NEW YORK DRINKING GAME. Like all great games, it's simple - but makes certain demands of the players:

Simply watch for any time Castle gets New York wrong...and take a drink!

I'll start you off. I'm watching the episode entitled "Heroes & Villains." The cops just mentioned "an abandoned tenement" near "Theatre Alley." Theatre Alley is downtown, literally three blocks from City Hall...on some of the most expensive real estate IN THE WORLD.


Thursday, August 29, 2013

Cthulhu Watch 2013 Continues!

Seems someone in Oklahoma has claimed a restaurant for the Dark God Azathoth.

Five Reasons To Stick a Fork in Your Worldbuilding and Get to Writing

And now, a word to my fellow writers of speculative fiction.

Go onto any writer forum dealing with F/SF, and half the questions are about worldbuilding: How do I make maps? What kind of grammar reflects a warrior culture? Can anyone tell me about reasonable weather patterns? How do you create gods - all I know are the Greek and Norse ones?

And when I see them, I want to squeeze out a few tears, because that used to be me. Not recently. A  long time ago. A LONG, LOOONG, LOOOOOONG time ago. Not anymore, though. Here's why.

1. You know what you could be doing while asking these questions? You could be writing.

2. You know who asks these questions? Not writers. Dungeon masters. Are you a WRITER?

3. You know the difference between Anna Karenina and Fodor's Guide to Moscow? It's CHARACTERS. Worldbuilding isn't about characters.

4. You know what's exciting? Things that are uncertain. Is an anthropology class uncertain? No. When was the last time in college you woke up and said "Wow! Anthro 310 is today, and I'm totally stoked!"

5. You know what's hot? Naked worshippers of the local sex deity are hot. You know what's not? Sociology notes on the mating rituals of a made-up pseudo-Phoenician priesthood.

So stick in some swords. Some blood. Some sex. Some romance. Maybe some interstellar travel-writing details ("In the bazaars of F'knik, it is customary to offer a drop of blood to seal the bargain, but it does not have to be your blood...") Cut down on the politics, the interstellar trade law, the economic treatises of far-off kingdoms...unless you actually KNOW what you're talking about enough to make a story out of political backstabbing or currency-rate fluctuations. (And you probably don't.)

Have some fun, f'r Mithras' sake. Unless you don't know anything about fun, either. Of course, if you're sitting by yourself in a room drawing maps...

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Little "Game of Thrones" Fan Service Speculation

My current favorite character - even more than Tyrion Lannister - is Margaery Tyrell. Now there's a cunning wench. You know, put her with Tyrion, and you might have a functional royal family.

Won't happen, of course. That would be too sensible. Plus that whole marriage-for-life thing. Divorce, what a lifesaver! Literally...

Monday, August 26, 2013

A Science Fiction/Fantasy/Speculative Fiction Resource

One of the things that I've tried to do with this blog (admittedly, somewhat sporadically) is to provide some resources for fellow writer/reader/fans of the genre. One of those resources is one that I created myself, and first premiered on AbsoluteWrite.com. It's called "The List" or "The Basics" - a list of many of the genre's "Big Ideas" and the stories that gave those ideas their first (or best, or most famous) expositions. Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Fred Pohl, CM Kornbluth, Jack Williamson, Poul Anderson, Roger Zelazny, JRR Tolkien, they're all there, and many others, one way or another.

Check it out. It's there, in the righthand column under "Pages."

Another Quick Thought About the Next Great Speculative-Fiction TV Show

Any steampunk TV series could also, very easily, be an Alternate History series. F'rinstance, if a certain Archduke was never assassinated in Sarajevo, World War I might not have happened - or it might have happened later, and differently. Imagine a world without a World War II, where the sun has still never set on the British Empire, and the vast technological leaps encouraged by things like the Manhattan Project never happened.

It might be a very analogue, non-digital, slide-rule over calculator, Nikolas Tesla kind of world...

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Next Great Speculative Fiction TV Series

Last week I asked "What is the next serious fantasy or science fiction sub genre for television?" Why don't we take a look at the groundbreakers so far:

Horror (The Walking Dead; American Horror Story)
Paranormal Romance (True Blood; Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
Space Opera (Battlestar Galactica)
Epic Fantasy (Game of Thrones)
Superheroes (Heroes)

That leaves some strong contenders, like-

Alternate History: Maybe we lost the Revolutionary War. Maybe the Roman Empire never fell. Maybe...
Contemporary Fantasy: It's our ordinary world, but there's magic.
Cyberpunk: The world sucks, and cyberstuff is everywhere.
First Contact: We meet the alien Other.
Slipstream/Magic Realism (Bryan Fuller has done some great work here)
Steampunk: Queen Victoria is on the throne, and computers have cogs and gears.
Time Travel: So many, many, many so-so series...
Urban Fantasy: Contemporary fantasy with a hard, noir edge, like The Dresden Files (which they did make into a series...a bad, bad series.)

Now, to be clear, there have been TV series that have explored all of these possibilities, but none of them have been as groundbreaking as shows like BSG and GoT. (And when I say "groundbreaking," I mean gaining widespread cultural acceptance outside of the F/SF community, from people who would otherwise ignore or dismiss speculative fiction.) Instead, there have been shows ranging in quality from Time Tunnel and Charmed to Firefly and Babylon 5 - but none of them "breakouts."

Personally, I think this is the time for a steampunk series. They kind of tried with Wild, Wild West some twenty years before KW Jeter coined the term. These days, steampunk is as much (or more) an aesthetic than a sub genre; but if someone could find an appropriate message/attitude/theme for the series (the difference between civilization and barbarism, perhaps? Imperialism, maybe?) it could play...

Friday, August 23, 2013

An Article on SF Publishing for My Fellow Writers

Over at io9.com (yes, another referral to them) there's a listicle of common misconceptions about science fiction publishing. Most of them are on the money (the last is less misconceived than they think). Anyway, here it is. Pretty interesting.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

That "Starks Are Dead" Thing? GRRM Has the Answer

If you're writing a franchise in which any character, minor or major, can be killed at any time, then eventually you're going to run out of characters to kill. Now, if you've been thinking tactically, not strategically, that's the end of the story.

If you're like George R.R. Martin, however, you understand that to keep things going when you're merrily bumping off big characters left and right, you can't just work with the Majors. You have to have the farm leagues as well. That's why, although we start off with the Starks in Game of Thrones, we eventually encounter characters like Brienne of Tarth, Bronn son of no one in particular, Ser Davos, et al. Any one of these secondary characters can then become a major character...who can, of course, be killed off in turn. You just have to prepare by planting them far enough in advance, so you have a nice, deep bench of pre-corpses.

The corollary to this: Any character with a unique characteristic that clearly has a bearing on the world at large - oh, an ability to command dragons, for instance - is probably safe. That is, unless or until some other character acquires that characteristic.

So if somebody else in Westeros suddenly develops the ability to speak in Old Valyrian and withstand stone-melting fire, look out. Daenerys' days may be numbered.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Charlie Jane Anders and Flowing Sentences

Over at io9.com, Charlie Jane Anders has a really good writing-tips piece on narrative flow. Check it out here.

Witches - Some People Put Them in Novels; Others Think That They're Real

As you've probably figured out by now, I write fantasy. Magic swords, mythical creatures, spells and omens, it's all good. But when I write fantasy, I KNOW it's fantasy...that is, something that is not real. But there are places in this world, places with indoor plumbing, F-16 fighter jets, smartphones and air-conditioned shopping malls, where they honestly do not understand the difference between fantasy and reality.

Because in Saudi Arabia, they have religious police, and the police have instituted special divisions DEVOTED TO HUNTING WITCHES.

There are no checks on the power of the judges in these witch trials. They have become a good way for abusive employers to get rid of servants who complain of ill-treatment. And the penalty for witchcraft is death. This reminds me once again how special and irreplaceable was the Enlightenment. It makes me want to kiss Voltaire and John Locke and David Hume, all of 'em, right on the lips.

Separation of Church and State. The Scientific Method. Free Speech.

Never forget.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

I Wonder What We Will Do When All the Starks Are Dead?

NO-SPOILER ALERT - I don't know that all the Starks on *that show* will die. I don't know who will live or die on Game of Thrones. (Whoops, I said the name. Ah, well.) But let's face it - the Starks do kind of seem to be an entire Woobie family.

But my real question is what will happen when the series ends. So far, TV has given us two truly, radically successful F/SF series: Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones. Obviously, there are dozens of other F/SF series that I've liked, from Firefly to DS9 to- yes, even Farscape.

But here's the thing: All of those other series were genre series - "Genre" in the sense that the creators relied to some extent on the viewers having an affection for the genre, a tolerance for its conventions and tropes, and an enhanced willingness to suspend disbelief. These shows were, in some sense, comfort food. Outcomes were, to some extent, predictable.

That was never true of Battlestar and Game of Thrones. No one was/is safe. Anything can happen. (Granted, Battlestar lost that edge as the series continued - but in that first season, anyone could die. Anyone could be a Cylon.) And that feeling of uncertainty, that anything can happen, is what separates radical F/SF from the comfort-food, Doctor Who variety.

So far we've had a hard-core, military space opera and a traditional alternate-world fantasy. There will be more radical series (I hope). I just wonder what they will be.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Medieval Recipe Day: Let's Make a Posset!

What is a posset, you ask? Well, these days it's a syllabub. (Wait, what's a syllabub? Shut up, you.)

But BACK IN THE DAY (which, for the purposes of this blog, is any time after the year 900 CE but before the invention of playing cards with feelthy peectures on 'em) a posset was your basic cold and flu remedy, the medieval British version of chicken soup, except a little more disgusting - they are hot milk drinks, curdled with beer, ale or wine (especially sweet wines). Other ingredients would include toast, sugar, nutmeg, and "spice." Lady Macbeth poisoned people's possets; but typically, peasant parents prepped possets for little peons at play. By the Elizabethan era, there were even specially made posset pots. So, want to get your posset on? Here are a couple of recipes yanked at random from the aether:

To make a Posset
Take a Quart of White-wine and a quart of Water, boil whole Spice in them, then take twelve Eggs and put away half the Whites, beat them very well, and take the Wine from the fire, then put in your Eggs and stir them very well, then set it on a slow fire, and stir it till it be thick, sweeten it with Sugar, and strew beaten Spice thereon, then serve it in
You may put in Ambergreece if you like it, or one perfumed Lozenge

To make a Sack Posset
Take two quarts of Cream and boil it with Whole Spice, then take twelve Eggs well beaten and drained, take the Cream from the fire, and stir in the Eggs, and as much Sugar as will sweeten it, then put in so much Sack as will make it taste well, and set it on the fire again, and let it stand a while, then take a Ladle and raise it up gently from the bottom of the Skillet you make it in, and break it as little as you can, and so do till you see it be thick enough; then put it into a Bason with the Ladle gently; if you do it too much it will whey, and that is not good

Old-Fashioned Posset
4 cups milk
4 tablespoons sugar
4 slices toast
1 teaspoon cinnamon
4 cups of beer (preferably ale)

Heat the milk, sugar, and toast in a saucepan, but don't let it boil. Stir the cinnamon and beer together in a punch bowl.

Discard the toast. Pour the hot milk over the ale and stir. Drink from mugs while warm. Serves 8-10.

©"Beer and Good Food," by Myra Waldo, 1958.

The astute reader will notice the option of including ambergris in the recipe, and gag a little bit. Also, if anyone knows the difference between a "posset" and a "sack posset," let me know.