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 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 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 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.