A Shameless Plug

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m trying to get back into the game of fiction writing. Along the way, I’ve met plenty of awesome people who got involved in the game after I left, or never left and went on to do amazing things. Charles Barouch is one of the latter. We worked together years ago when we both wrote game review columns for Gateways magazine, which has long since disappeared into the mists of time.

Charles now had his own small press, HDWP Books, and is currently producing an intriguing short fiction series called “Theme-Thologies.” The idea is simple: create a theme for a book then find the best stories possible to fill the space.

I’m not in any of the books currently on the shelf but I am working to get a piece into one of the future anthologies. I do believe in the project and the staff and writers involved, however, so I’ll be putting some cash down for these titles. You may consider doing the same. If nothing else, let’s share this far and wide and get some exposure for these guys.

 Charles’s post as it appeared on his G+ account earlier today reads as follows:
I need $6
You are all nice people. I’m sure if I asked you for $6, just because I needed it — or even wanted it — a lot of you would reach into your pocket. I’m not asking for me. Well, not exactly for me…
Here’s my problem: I need to jumpstart the sales on Theme-Thology. These are really good books but we aren’t visible enough. Can you spare $6 to help 18 authors and artists?A Promise: From now until April 21st, if you buy the first two Theme-Thologies (total: $5.98) and post a review of either of them (on Amazon, B&N, or Kobo, or GoodReads), I will send you the first eBook from our new science fiction series: Interrogative: Tiago and the Masterless. Just post a link to the review at http://www.hdwpbooks.com/books/thankyou and the book is yours.A Prize: Additionally, from now until April 21st, if you buy any of the first three Theme-Thologies ($2.99 each), I will enter you into a drawing to win one of the following eBooks: one of five different Mike Reeves-McMillan books (City of Masks, Hope and the Patient Man, Hope and the Clever Man, Realmgolds, Gu), A Noble’s Quest by Ryan Toxopeus, Adjacent Fields by Charles Barouch, or The Tower’s Alchemist by Alesha Escobar.
Just buy the Theme-Thology of your choice and post at http://www.hdwpbooks.com/books/thankyou.● Already bought them? Post a review (on Amazon, B&N, or Kobo, or GoodReads) and I will send you the first eBook of our new science fiction series: Interrogative: Tiago and the Masterless and put you in the drawing. Just post a link to the review at http://www.hdwpbooks.com/books/thankyou.

● Received the Adjacent Fields signed, limited edition print book at Spectrum 2013? Post a review (on Amazon, B&N, or Kobo, or GoodReads) and I will send you the first eBook of our new science fiction series: Interrogative: Tiago and the Masterless and put you in the drawing. Just post a link to the review at http://www.hdwpbooks.com/books/thankyou.

Full Details Here: http://www.hdwpbooks.com/books/thankyou

Buy if you can, click on one of the share buttons below if you can’t.

ThirdScribe Launches Today

Today is February 17, aka President’s day, which used to be known as George Washington’s Birthday. As old timers will remember, we only got the day off (along with Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12). No lumped together presidents’ birthdays, no week-long vacation from school. But today is still a holiday, so yea for a day off of work.

Second bit of good news: iTunes’ season pass for Season 3 of Game of Thrones earns its money today as the entire season is supposed to be available for download starting today. I’m crossing my fingers on that one; iTunes can be finicky when it comes to streaming multiple downloads, especially if several people on the same account but with different computers watch the same shows. Not to mention that if I’m downloading 10 episodes, everyone else who bought the season pass is doing the same thing.

Third, but hardly the least important bit of good news for today: Rob McClellan’s  book-centric social media network ThirdScribe goes live today. I’ve created book pages for the two library-oriented books I’ve contributed to.

I’ve been alpha testing Thirdscribe for the past few months; I’m pretty happily impressed with the design. It’s designed from the ground up to be a social media tool for books, authors, and readers. Authors and readers can choose from paid or free accounts, depending on the perks they want to be included with their setup. DNS hosting and transfers are available as is URL forwarding, and entire site migration is available for bloggers and website owners who want to go whole-hog into adopting ThirdScribe as their new medium of choice.

ThirdScribe uses a WordPress framework to manage various site admin rights, visual arrangements, and interactive facets. The thing to remember is that while Thirdscribe does include full-featured blogging tools (hey, it’s WordPress) it’s meant to be primarily a social network. Books have pages, authors and contributors, and sales links. Each one also has a forum which you set up at the time you create the book (or not, the choice is yours). Once your account is set up, you can check on your own books, modify the information about them more or less at will, then check out other members’ pages and see what books they’ve created pages for and who is saying what in their book forums.

Beyond that, you can synch your ThirdScribe network profile (but not your blog) to any social media platforms you already have, so that what’s posted in ThirdScribe is pushed to, say, Facebook and Twitter.

My testing has convinced me that ThirdScribe is something genuinely useful for books, and the people who read and write them. Meaning that I’ll be sticking with it for the forseeable future. I probably won’t be transferring this blog over to my ThirdScribe space simply because there are different people who read this than who are likely to want to talk about the books I like, but sure, there will be some cross-over as time goes on.

ThirdScribe is live, so take a good, long look at it. I think this thing has a bright future.

The Government is Toast, but MCNY is Still Here

Or, as CNN  put it in today’s news:

Washington (CNN) — The game of chicken failed. Neither side blinked. Now millions will pay the price.

Americans watched a colossal failure by Congress overnight and the shutdown of their government.

For weeks, the House and the Senate blamed and bickered, each claiming they’re standing up for what the public wants.

In the end, it led to the one outcome nobody wanted — one that will stop 800,000 Americans from getting paid and could cost the economy about $1 billion a week.

“Agencies should now execute plans for an orderly shutdown due to the absence of appropriations,” the Office of Management and Budget said in a note it sent to federal employees.

This is the first time the government has shut down in nearly 18 years. The last time it did, the stalemate lasted 21 days during the Clinton administration.

Which, we all remember, was initiated by a southern fried lunatic named Newt Gingritch (GA-R). History repeating itself? Well, yes, as far as I can tell, it is. But city and state governments are still running, and while that is eminently useful, the two entities are not really interchangeable.

This situation is a bit nerve wracking as MCNY gets a fair amount of support from student loans which are run through the federal government, but today and for the forseeable future, we are here.

And because we are here, we have a new display going up shortly. Here’s a look at the stack of books we pulled from the shelves:



As you can tell, the theme is “Monsters: Real & Imagined.” I’ll post another pic when it’s properly arranged.


RIP Richard Matheson, Story Teller

Richard Matheson, best known as a science fiction writer, died Monday night. He was 87.

I say ‘best known as a sci-fi writer’ because that’s how the obituaries are identifying him. Reuters did so, The Atlantic Wire says that he “defined sci-fi”. Others, like io9.com, remember him as the author of I Am Legend.

I don’t want to take any of that away from him. It’s just that I never thought of Matheson as strictly a science fiction writer. I thought he had a greater range than that. He told fantastic, memorable stories that spoke to legions of fans.

My first encounter with Matheson’s work was a copy of his Shock! anthology that my parents bought me when I was ten. I had encountered his work earlier than that–multiple episodes of the Twilight Zone (including favorites like “Mute“, “Death Ship“, “Steel“, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet“, “Night Call“, “Spur of the Moment“) and a particularly wacky episode of Star Trek TOS (“The Enemy Within“)–but it wasn’t until much later that I started paying attention to him specifically. Shock! has a bunch of sciencey-type stories between the covers: “Dance of the Dead”, about battlefield zombies harnessed by unscrupulous nightclubs for entertainment; “Lemmings”, a very strange short-short about a country-wide suicide episode, and “The Creeping Terror” about a madness-inducing fungus that spreads across North America, are three that stay with me.

Other works from that collection have nothing to do with empirical reality but are just plain fun to read: “The Ledge”, about a wager gone horribly wrong; “The Legion of Plotters”, about a touch of persecution, and “Death Ship”, about three astronauts forever trying to get home and failing miserably, are three without any science at all but which are compelling fiction nonetheless.

Then there are stories like “The Splendid Source” (which was recently turned into a Family Guy episode) which are just a good, weird flavor of awesome.

Anyway, I got older, and I read everything from Matheson I could find. Luckily, his work was in constant circulation and I come from a long line of old school sci-fi geeks, enabling me to find original prints of stories like “Born of Man and Woman” which appeared in the Year’s Best Science Fiction of 1950. Considering that gems like “The Weapon Shop” by A.E. van Vogt and “It’s a Good Life” by Jerome Bixby were in the same volume, Matheson had excellent company. “Steel” of course gave rise to the Twilight Zone episode of the same name and while I haven’t seen Real Steel yet, I want to eventually. I mean, come on, who doesn’t really want to see Wolverine teach a ten foot robot how to box like a pro?

I purposely stayed away from his longer works for years. I liked his short stories so much, I didn’t want to ruin the appreciation I had for them. But I was in the habit of seeing the films that had been made of his longer work before reading the books. (That was how we rolled in the 70s, yo.) Films like The Omega Man and The Incredible Shrinking Man were enjoyable in their own campy ways. They weren’t great works of art but they were fun. The Legend of Hell House was a fair adaptation of the frankly terrifying book of the same name–except the movie managed to be even creepier in the way that only 1970s ghost movies can be. As for the film Robin Williams made of What Dreams May Come . . . well, after having finally read the book, let’s just say the film didn’t quite measure up. I read I Am Legend for the first time around the time the Will Smith film came out (never saw it, not planning to) and thought it one of the bleakest books I’ve ever read.

I admit I haven’t read The Incredible Shrinking Man yet, either, although it sits on my shelf. That book is a big deal, or became a big deal once I found out that Scott Carey was a stand in for Matheson’s father who lost his job and his confidence some time in middle age. That hits a little close to home.

Then there are books like The Path. I read that one years ago, right after reading What Dreams may Come . . . which, Matheson swore in the acknowledgements, was written purely from research except for the characters. I’m still not sure if it’s meant to be fiction or not.

If you’re a good enough story teller, then the science doesn’t really matter. Richard Matheson was. He will be missed.


A Book A Week: Flashforward

Proof positive that Robert J. Sawyer is a visionary writer in at least two respects:

Lloyd and Theo disengaged, and Lloyd surged across the room. He reached out and took Michiko’s hands and pulled her to her feet, then hugged her.

“Honey,” Michiko said, “what is it?”

Lloyd gestured at the console. Michiko’s eyes went wide. “Sinjirarenai!” she exclaimed. “You got it!

Lloyd grinned even more. “We got it!”

“Got what?” asked one of the reporters. “Nothing happened, damn it!”

“Oh, yes it did,” said Lloyd.

Theo was grinning, too. “Yes, indeed!”

“What?” demanded the same reporter.

“The Higgs!”said Lloyd.

“The what?”

“The Higgs boson!” said Lloyd, his arm around Michiko’s waist. “We got the Higgs!”

Another reporter stifled a yawn. “Big fucking deal,” he said.

In honor of the fact that the world of science has more or less identified the Higgs boson–a.k.a. The God Particle–and, judging from the relative lack of news coverage it received, that the world could not care less (except for us science nerds), I figured I’d take the chance to review Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer. Published by Tor in 1999, it’s a neat book and a fun read which had nothing whatsoever to do with the television series that was ostensibly made from it.

Well . . . it had some similarities. In the show, main character Lloyd Simcoe was the dashing young physicist with Alan Richman’s accent (if not his delivery) and a son on the autism spectrum; in the book, Simcoe is the middle-aged Canadian physicist with a Japanese girlfriend a decade junior to him, who has a daughter who dies on page 10. And there is a strange event that renders all humans on the planet unconscious whereupon they experience their lives decades in the future. But that’s where the overlap kind of ends.

Let’s start with the book.

Lloyd Simcoe is the head physicist on an international project to  identify the Higgs boson. The experiment is planned for April 21, 2009. They throw the switch, and every human on the planet falls unconscious for two minutes and seventeen seconds as they experience their lives twenty-one days in the future. They wake to find the world in chaos. Automobile collisions are everywhere (Michiko’s daughter was hit by a car and killed instantly), swimmers have drowned, aircraft have crashed on take-off or landing; people have burned to death after collapsing on their stoves or broken bones while falling down stairs. And no surveillance camera anywhere caught any of it; two minutes and seventeen seconds of snow is all they can show.

Simcoe’s ALICE project has created a temporal event, we learn. Everyone has an experience of themselves at a future point in time. This bring up a slew of paradoxical arguments, suppositions, and flat denials that there is such a thing a time travel in any form (Sawyer bring up Larry Niven’s Law of Time Travel, and mocks a James Randi-like character).

The bulk of the book is an exercise in scientific methodology, as the characters work to figure out what happened, how it happened, and why it happened. In the meantime, everyone wants to work through what they saw (or didn’t see . . . those who were dead in the future merely stayed unconscious; Simcoe’s co-worker Theo Procopides is one of these). A wiki is set up so that individuals can tell their respective stories. Every new story becomes another piece of the mosaic.

Ultimately, the cause is determined: at the very second the Large Hadron Collider was revved up to full power, the Earth was being hit by a wave of neutrinos emitted from a remnant of supernova 1987A. This remnant is not a proper neutron star, but a quark star, an incredibly weird object composed of superdense strange matter. These pulses happen in response to frequent (in human terms) starquakes. As the date of the future visions approaches, a satellite is launched to orbit Pluto so it can give a few days’ warning to Earth (neutrinos have mass so they travel slower than light; a radio message would arrive earlier.) The intent is to create another flashforward.

The final part of the book takes place twenty-one years later and  follows Simcoe’s co-worker Theo Procopides; one of the few remaining scientists at CERN, which was abandoned years earlier. The satellite has flashed a warning, and the LHC needs some repair to activate. Descending into the machinery he finds the embittered husband of a woman who died in the flashforward attempting to sabotage the gear. A chase and fight ensues, and Theo both manages to put down the attacker and prevent his own death.

It turns out that the flashforward transported everyone to the day of the second neutrino burst. People prepare for the flashforward by lying in bed or on the floor; the switch is thrown, and for nearly everyone nothing happens except for an hour of mere unconsciousness. Lloyd, however, experiences a bit of life far into the future, well after the Moon has been turned into a partial Dyson Sphere. After the event, he is offered the chance (along with Nobel laureates from around the world) to partake of a treatment that will allow a form of immortality by means of biomechanical bodies. Lloyd realizes that the flashforward was a connection between two points of quantum connection occurring within the lifetimes of the people involved. Since death severs the connection, only those who were offered the immortality treatment had visions.

This is what makes an awesome science fiction story: smart characters doing smart things, trying to solve a problem that threatens to change everything. It does not, however, make for necessarily compelling television. So, they turned it into a cop show. Simcoe became a side character, the FBI became the stars of the show, and the flashforwards became an attempt by shadowy forces to manipulate the world.

I watched the show. Every episode. It was fun and I’m glad Sawyer got the recognition (and, I’d hope, the money) that he deserved. But it wasn’t the same.

There were a few bits in the book that I just couldn’t get over. The reason that the cameras did not record anything, for example, was reportedly due to unobserved (and unobservable) wave functions. In short: every observed event is the result of a collapsed wave function. The cat in the box might be alive or dead–mathematically, it is both alive and dead–until you look in the box. Then the wave function collapses to a single state: alive or dead.

Sawyer’s premise is that if every human on the planet falls unconscious, then nothing really happens in the sense of  concrete events; what follows for that period of time is mere potentiality of events. Which might make sense mathematically (my Math Fu is not up to that particular task) but doesn’t quite work in the world we all experience. Clearly the universe existed in a concrete, measurable fashion before humans showed up to observe it, before there was such a thing as conscious thought.  I think one can make a good case for the fact of big-brained mammals (dolphins and the great apes, at least) being competent observers. I think one can make a case for the first bacteria being the first observers.

And Sawyer has a thing for immortality. It shows up in a number of his books. Sometimes the subject is parenthetical, as in Starplex and Calculating God, but once in a while it becomes the focus of the story, as in The Terminal Experiment. I admit that I’m years behind in following his books, but I’m eager to see if he ever works through that particular issue, and if so, how.

Anyway . . . we got the Higgs!

A Book A Week: We Meant Well

The phrase “winning their hearts and minds,” is an old one at the Pentagon, going back to the heady days of the Vietnam War. Besides making the unfortunate acronym: WHAM, it’s indicative of how the U.S. military has planned wars: deep down, the logic goes, everyone loves America, and by extension, Americans.  The Vietnamese didn’t really want to fight us, they just didn’t know any better. Sometimes they had no choice: Ho Chi Minh was poisoning their minds with anti-American propaganda and the Viet Cong were threatening their villages. According to this logic the key to winning Vietnam was getting the locals on our side: their hearts and minds were ours to count on, if only we could figure out the right incentives.

Well, we know how well that went.

Fast forward a few decades, replace Vietnam with Iraq and Ho Chi Minh with Saddam Hussein, and you get an idea of where this leads: Operation Iraqi Freedom. The particulars are different, the grand plan is not.

Welcome to the wacky world of Iraqi independence from something. But not from American influence and aid, as Peter van Buren describes in his book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. Place: Iraq. Population: the U.S. army, a bunch of Marines, the U.S. Navy, which flies combat air patrols from off the coast, a few diplomats, a huge number of private contractors, no small number of mercenaries, and Foreign Service Officer Peter Van Buren.

The State Department was tasked in 2003 to gaining the trust and co-operation of the Iraqis in managing the American presence in their country. In some cases this meant buying loyalty from local troops. Sometimes it meant paying informants for intelligence on local troublemakers. More than once it meant teaching the Iraqis to create local businesses, complete with written plans, venture capital, income and expenses, and financial reporting. (You’ll notice it generally had to do with spending money.)

The reality was usually  different.

Peter van Buren was intimately familiar with these situations. A career diplomat, he volunteered to serve as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) in Iraq from 2009 to 2010. Most importantly, as soon as this book was published, the State Department lost no time in revoking his security clearance and then filed paperwork in order to dismiss him. A case might be made for his situation based on his publishing without a government mandate, but not a good one. The government received a draft for their examination as the rules dictate. There is nothing in this book that suggests vital intelligence was leaked. There’s nothing in here that suggests anything but the pervasive incompetence that comes from following the theory even when it’s been disproved by reality.

But the book is embarrassing, or it should be. It begins with the story of My Arabic Library, a collection of American titles translated into Arabic for the U.S. government, with the stated purpose of teaching literacy to the natives. The possibility that Iraqis might not care to read Huckleberry Finn or Moby Dick never occurred to the planners who developed the project (at a cost of $88,000.) The books arrived and end up in a rubbish heap in back of an Iraqi elementary school.

There’s the story of how they went into the desert to evaluate a  sewage plant (among many throughout Iraq) for repair: under Saddam, all water and sewage services were free. The new paradigm meant (among other things) adding machinery to measure flow rates in order to sell services to locals. Repairing the plant involved huge government outlays to be divvied up between contractors in multiple countries, none of which were Iraqi. The plant is never repaired. The cost: $4.6 billion dollars.

There’s the story of sex on Forward Operating Bases: the official rules say don’t do it. Unofficially, there’s plenty of action going on. Some couples head to latrines for a bit of privacy, others beg their room mates to take an extra long coffee break. Propositions fly across offices in e-mails, and some get forwarded all over the Internet. Like seeks like, and the lonely seek each other. What happens in Iraq stays in Iraq.

There are extensive chapters on entering and exiting the country through military way stations: warehouses full of men and women beset by paperwork, gear checks, body armor snafus, and a lot of waiting for something to happen.

There’s the story about seeking coherent trash collection led to van Buren’s meeting Yasmine, an honest municipal service director who concedes that the corruption and lack of skilled technocrats would stymie any attempt to fix existing problems. Everyone agrees that trash pickup is a real need: the army fears that piles of garbage will make hiding spots for home made bombs, the civilians fear the vermin the piles attract, locals hired to actually do the work seem better at making the money disappear than the garbage.

The result is the same, time and time again: the Americans define a problem, the government fronts a huge amount of cash to fix it, the money disappears, the problem never gets fixed. Never has so much been spent to enrich so few with so little result.

And yet . . . we meant well. If those three words don’t make you want to cry, the rest of the book will.

Van Buren is now a regular contributor to Tomdispatch.com. You could do worse than to follow his posts there.

A Book A Week: The Explorer

I spent this week taking in the horrors that James Smythe imposed upon his characters in The Explorer. It’s a lot of fun but not for the reasons you would probably expect.

What the author had to say on where the book came from was instructive: On the Apollo 11 mission while Aldrin and Armstrong were bouncing around collecting moon rocks, astronaut Michael Collins was alone in the command module, absolutely cut off from human contact for nearly an hour. Collins reported it as a liberating feeling, but then astronauts are supposed to be made of sterner stuff. What would some guy do in his place?

Well, in this case, some guy is Cormac Easton. And he handles it badly.

Cormac is a journalist turned astronaut, assigned to cover the story of the century: the first manned space mission to the reaches beyond the Moon. The idea is to head out as far as possible, with a crew that’s been trained to handle the daily rigors of running the ship as well as the media aspects of selling it to the public. All the funding is provided by corporate sponsors, and the result is a ship filled with brands and logos: the food bars, the uniforms, the equipment, the hardware. The news networks will be watching everything they do. The point is to make space exploration awesome again to a world that has  lost the bug for manned space missions.

The optimistic crew climbs into their sleep pods, the ship blasts off. All is well. Then the crew awakens to find that Arlen, the ship’s pilot, is floating outside of his pod, dead. They call it an accident, Ground Control insists that they push onwards, and life goes on.

Things keep going wrong. The ship’s systems malfunction and shut down. The crew die, one by one, and while each death is tragic, the communications from Ground Control are consistent: deal with it, forge ahead, the mission comes first. Eventually, the radio goes and that’s the end of that.

Finally, Cormac is left alone after having to sedate the ship’s doctor and stuff her into her sleep pod, comatose. He mopes, writes, broods, eats, drinks, breathes, writes, laments, writes , sleeps, all in total isolation. The crew is gone, Ground Control is gone, his family on Earth is gone. Finally, the ship itself proves damaged beyond his ability to repair or even comprehend. He grasps one thing: the ship’s fuel supply will run out in a few days and with it, his air. There is no hope of going home; the ship’s autopilot is also gone, and he doesn’t know how to fix it, anyway.

Cormac finally decides that enough enough. Destroying the ship is the only way out. He heads to the pilot’s chair, brings the engines to full power, says his goodbyes to the universe, pushes the button–

–and then wakes up in complete darkness, freezing, oxygen starved, and freaking out. His hands find what he recognizes as a sleep pod, pulls it open, displaces the body inside with his own, and sleeps. He wakes, opens the pod, sees the now dead body of Arlen, the ship’s pilot, and realizes that not only has he somehow gone back to the beginning, but he’s becom(ing) the cause of his ship’s problem.

Then things get really strange.

This is a difficult book to read, primarily because it brings up the question that all nifty time-travel stories have: where does agency fit in to a world that is looped in on itself ? In Cormac Easton’s case, he finds out the hard way. Once he realizes what he’s done and where he is, he retreats from his crew mates, choosing to live in the ship’s storeroom and later literally crawls into the lining of the hull, watching the others go about their lives through the grill work. I found the choice of the lining fascinating, like a weird kind of ascension even as he devolves into an insect.

This strategy lets the reader take a look at the story and the metastory at the same time. It makes for an always fascinating, frequently infuriating, and occasional aggravating read. Cormac finds out exactly what happens by being able to observe everyone, very much in a fly-on-the-wall point of view. He discovers that the ship’s mission was a hoax: they were never meant to come home. Their deaths were meant to inspire a new wave of space exploration.He discovers that the accident that killed one crewman was no accident, but a suicide, and that the ship’s engineer was actually paid to sabotage the ship.

My trouble was the question of agency.  It’s there, but as Cormac watches himself and his coworkers go through the motions and we find out what really happened to each crew member in turn, his own detachment from them and from his first self compounds. Finally, you just want to reach into the page and shake the poor guy, slap him across the face a few times, and scream DON’T JUST TELL YOURSELF IT’S HOPELESS, YOU IDIOT! DOOOOOO SOMETHING!

Yeah. Maybe it’s just me expecting a book other than the one that Smythe wrote, but that really bugged me. It’d be one thing if he tried to change things and was thwarted by whatever, but to tell yourself that something can’t be changed because it can’t be changed sounds like giving up.

And yet, it made sense. Cormac is a reporter, an observer. Watching everything and paying almost voyeuristic attention to people and how they interact is what he does. And in fairness to the author, that’s how he shows us just how screwed up everything in this story is. It worked.

So if you’re into giant space battles, you might want to pass this one up. If, on the other hand, you enjoy tortured explorations into the human soul, then this book is just your speed.

Movie Review: The Hobbit

I’m not a movie critic, and I’m not about to call myself one. But I went to see The Hobbit over the weekend, and the truth was I liked it quite a lot.

But . . . yeah.

All right, back to the beginning. I specifically decided NOT to see the 3-D version of the film. I think 3-D is fine for people who like that sort of thing, and plenty of people do like it, which is why so many action films are being made for that particular medium now. I’m not one of those people. 48 frames a second, is, I’m told by people who know what they are talking about, a way to make the action sequences more engrossing, more spectacular, more illusory than mere flat projection. And maybe that’s right. I haven’t noticed enough of a difference in my own viewing. At any rate, I saw an old school version of the film. Sue me.

I specifically did not re-read the book before going to see the film. There didn’t seem to be a reason to do so. There was no way that Jackson was going to simply shoot the book, and we all knew that years in advance. Additionally, this is the first part of a prequel and the book is way shorter than LOTR. Hell, even Ranklin and Bass couldn’t pack more than 77 minutes of footage into the cartoon they made in 1977. So, when fans heard that Jackson intended to create a 9-12 hour epic in three parts based on this particular book, it doesn’t take a huge amount of effort to realize that he made up stuff on his own to fill up the holes. If this were a novelization, it’d be two thousand pages long.

So, the film is the film and the book is the book. When the credits say the film is based on the book, they tell the truth. Two media entities with common ancestry can be very different and remain true to the original material. What Jackson did was expand the existing Peter Jackson’s-take-on-Tolkien universe. That much, I approve of. (Inventing scenes filled with cringing women–I’m looking at you, Helm’s Deep–not so much; not at all, in fact.)

You know the story: Bilbo Baggins has his comfortable, quite life in the Shire  turned upside-down by Gandalf the Grey, who shows up quite unannounced with 12 dwarves from the Lonely Mountain kingdom in tow. They need a burglar to sneak past Smaug, the fire drake who’s set up shop in the ruins of their lost home and Bilbo’s it. What follows is a long and tumultuous sequence of events involving established characters and  few new faces: trolls, Elrond, Sauraman, Galadriel,  Radagast the Brown, spiders, a Necromancer, Gollum, The One Ring, Goblins, Orcs, eagles, and now we wait for part two.a

Seriously: Jackson fills out his universe is fascinating ways. It’s not the action that interested me–although what Tolkien buff doesn’t want to see massive battles between dwarves and orcs enacted in 70mm–so much as what Jackson did with the characters. Having scads of time to fill meant that a number of the dwarves have fully developed back stories which are brought to bear on a number of points during the film. Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown steals every scene he’s in without even trying. His plot line is also a way to introduce the spiders as something more malevolent than mere blood suckers out of Mirkwood (as they were in the book). Now they’re part of a “creeping evil” out of Dol Guldur: a necromancer who’s feeling his oats after centuries of inactivity–which we know as an audience is a prelude to Sauron’s process of rebuilding his power base in Middle Earth.

On that note, the Wizard’s council involving Gandalf, Saruman, Elrond and Galadriel is a priceless bit of back story reworking without becoming a full-fledged recton. We learn that Saruman is already working for the Big S. sixty years before the LOTR gets going–not a surprise, but we get an awesome scene where the White Wizard insists that there’s nothing to see here as he is presented with the evidence of bad things on the horizon. Beyond that, the signal trading that went on between Galadriel and Gandalf in order to buy time for the dwarves and Bilbo to leave Rivendell unmolested was a better device than another ten minutes of exposition would have been.

As to Andy Serkis as Gollum . . . well, come on, that’s why we all went to see this film. I was interested to see Serkis named as Second Unit Director in the closing credits, too. It made sense to a degree, with all the side story that Serkis is involved with and the fact that crawling around a set in a motion-capture suit has to sensitize you to knowing where everything is at any time during the shoot. Hell, Serkis is the the second unit. For that matter, the point mapping that was done to graft Barry Humphries’ face onto the Great Goblin’s head, wattle and all, was brilliantly executed, and Humphries made a wonderful show of voicing the bad guy. (Think of the character as Baron Vladamir Harkonnen meets The Blob.)

The bottom line is that the film dragged in a few places but at no point did it ever feel like a 3 hour long slog. The credits rolled and I found myself  impatient for the next installment. In that respect, Jackson knows his business and delivered a quality product.

A Book A Week: Deer Hunting With Jesus

A few days working my way through Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War by Joe Bageant, has taught me an important lesson: I have it easy. And so do you.

You think you have it bad? You don’t. You have a job you hate, kids, a mortgage, stress, crazed neighbors, days when you want to strangle whomever is next to you for no better reason than they pissed you off. We all have those. You haven’t made the big time by any means, but trust me, if you’re here, reading this, you’re in good shape.

To understand the meaning of the term “utterly screwed”, you need to spend a few hours in Winchester, Virgina with Joe Bageant, an old school socialist gonzo reporter who spent the last decades of his life thoroughly denouncing the  “American hologram” that life here had morphed into. It was a big deal to him: he used the phrase 24 times in this book alone.

Bageant wrote an online column (www.joebageant.com) that made him a cult hero among gonzo-journalism junkies and folks whose politics veered to the left. He gave interviews on Air America (remember that?) and commented on America’s long history of religious fundamentalism. He was in his editor’s words, a “undeniable product of the Internet.” Not inasmuch as he grew up using it so much as it gave him a huge audience for his work after a meaningless but relatively prosperous (he had health insurance through his job) career in newspaper reporting.

Joe Bageant’s subject matter has been the working-class multitudes of the south and west, the folks that I by a nature of my birth, education, and history have only come into contact rarely and tangentially. It’s best to let him describe these folks in his own words:

The one thing the thinking left and urban liberals have not done is tread the soil of the Goth–subject themselves to the unwashed working-class America, to that churchgoing, hunting and fishing, Bud Light-drinking, provincial America. To the people who cannot, and do not care to, locate Iraq or France on a map–assuming they even own an atlas. Few educated liberals will ever find themselves sucking down canned beer at the local dirt track or listening to the preacher explain the infallibility of the Bible on every known topic from biology to the designated-hitter rule or attending awards night at a Christian school or getting drunk to Teddy and the Starlight Ramblers playing C&W at the Eagles Club.

Welcome to Joe’s world. It’s ugly, and it’s beautiful, and it’s creepy, and desperate, and full of hope, faith, tragedy, anger (a lot of anger), and guns, and alcohol, and religion, and pride, and honesty, and an unshakable belief in the American Dream. It’s full of back-breaking labor in dead-end factory jobs–when there are the jobs to be had, of course, which is not that often. It’s populated by people named Pooter, and Dottie, and Buck who understand every little thing that you and I do and expect from life but count themselves lucky if they can stay two payments behind on a double wide on a quarter acre lot in rural Virginia.

It’s a world where gun culture really is a culture: a way of feeding one’s family through hunting, involving family heirlooms lovingly cared for and handed down, father to son, in an unbroken chain that can go back a century or more. It’s a culture that is intensely spiritual and more fully engaged with the environment than some activist groups can imagine.

It’s a world that involves a level of class warfare that begins at the grassroots level and never really graduates into the capitalism we rich kids learned about in Eco 101. Local business owners call the shots because they are the big shots of their localities. They are (among other things) the landlords and slumlords who advise City Hall and influence the building codes , and they like things just fine. According to Bageant it’s more feudal than corporate, but no one down there has ever used the term class war, nor does it occur to them to do so.

The quote about “urban liberals” above might strike a few people who have spent their lives devoting time to worthy liberal causes as just another redneck slur. It’s not. One thing that Bageant–a long time old school socialist–laments is the way that modern liberalism has lost touch with the working class. To him, the working class  is not just a voting block to be wooed every two or four years. The working class is not made of nice people who visit coffee houses and head to open-mike poetry readings in the West Village because the New York Times told them to. The working class is a huge group of men and women who do things with their hands: electricians, plumbers, construction workers, bricklayers, masons, guys who climb telephone poles and women who work on assembly lines. They get the job done for damned little money and no job security, which, considering that they keep the country running, is shameful. And they only way that the progressive left will ever get their attention much less their loyalty is to go down there, spend time with them, and show them what progressive politics offers. These folks don’t have much presence on Facebook.

I could go on, but it’d be like the proverbial blind men examining an incredibly abused and worn down elephant. Just buy the book.

A Book A Week: Redshirts

In writing, you must kill your darlings. –William Faulkner.

Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of. –Kurt Vonnegut.

Writers are always selling someone out. — Joan Didion.


This week:  Redshirts by John Scalzi.

This wredshirts-coveras actually the first Scalzi book I read. I was hooked from the prologue. The novel deals head-on with a question we all have had after watching our first episode of televised SciFi (I’m looking at you, Star Trek). Namely: why do characters do things that will obviously get them killed in predictably stupid ways?

Short answer: because the story demanded it.

Long answer: because that’s how the writers wrote it and here is why they wrote it that way.

We don’t get all this up front, of course. The format of the story is very much like a TV show. Scenes and dialogue  are written perfunctorily, with a minimum of explanation and introspection. TV is an expository medium, so the book reads in much the same way.

Our protagonist is Ensign Andrew Dahl, newly assigned crewman to the Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union (aka “DubU”).

Dahl’s first few weeks of duty are normal. Desk work, drills, assignments in the xenobiology lab. Dahl starts wondering about his coworkers in lab after he notices strange behaviors. Like whenever the ship’s Science Officer comes around looking for bodies to put on an away mission, Dahl is somehow the only one in the room. There’s also an alien gizmo in the lab known as The Box, which will deliver an analysis of any substance put into it–but never a complete one. The result always necessitates a visit  to the bridge where Science Officer Q’eeng can cluck over it, make a few changes, and then hand the complete data back to the messenger with instructions on what to do with it.

It gets weirder. One crewman named Jenkins has taken to living in the cargo spaces between decks to avoid what he calls The Narrative. “Stay off the bridge,” he tells Dahl, “Avoid the Narrative. The next time you’re going to get sucked in. And then it’s all over for you.”

Ultimately, Dahl does get noticed by the Captain and his officers and does get assigned to away missions, where he watches his fellow crewmen destroyed by events apparently beyond their control, but somehow not. If a root is sticking out of the ground, someone will trip over it. The weapon the security guy pulls out is exactly what will drive the man-eating worms into a killing frenzy, even if no one in charge mentions that fact in the mission briefing.

Even the captain has noticed that things explode on the bridge whenever a battle with an enemy ship comes out, even if that other ship is pathetically underpowered compared to the Intrepid. “There is not a damn reason why everything on the bridge has to go up in sparks every time we have a battle,” he gripes to Dahl.

Along the way he watches his coworkers literally disappearing in hails of bullets, consumed by life forms filled with teeth, destroyed by killer robots that sprout new weapon at will, and otherwise lost to the drama of one away mission after another.

Before long, Dahl is learning that the Narrative is not just a metafictional construct but a persistent dimension that intersects with the ship and her crew. Ultimately, Dahl learns that today’s events are being directly influenced by events deep in the past and that it’s possible to get there using physics that only exist around certain crew members and that’s where shit gets real, as the kids say.

What follows is a masterpiece fourth wall osmosis that twists What Is around What Cannot Be, secures it with Because I Said So and sends your sense of perspective screaming into the darkest forest in the process. Everything can and does make sense if you just learn the rules of the universe and follow them to their natural conclusion.

The real gems of the novel don’t appear until one gets to the final three ‘Codas’, one each written from the first, second and third person point of view, each narrated by a character only tangentially dealt with in Dahl’s story, but just as essential to the plot. They nicely resolve what few loose ends appear and make complete sense in so doing.

Scalzi insists that the book has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that he worked as a creative consultant on Stargate Universe for two years, and I believe him. I watched SGU, I liked it. The writing was solid, even if I personally consider SG:Atlantis to be the best part of the Stargate franchise. Having said that, I can see how a reader with some experience watching TV would think of this book as a memoir in disguise. Tina Fey for instance was very up front about the fact that 30-Rock was based on her experiences at SNL. But fiction in general and particularly  television or movies can be disconnected from reality, which is why it’s fun. (They don’t call it escapist for no reason, folks). For the first three seasons, Numbers had an actual mathematician on staff as a consultant and the writing made sense. He left at the beginning of Season 4 and that was the end of that. The writers of Eureka were more focused on what they wanted: whatever they thought was cool, they wrote about; sometimes the science made sense, sometimes not so much. In an industry where Randy Quaid can blow up a mile-long spaceship with a Harpoon anti-ship missile or California can slide into the Pacific Ocean, fans overlook the impossible bits of our favorite shows because they’re  favorites.

Bottom line: Redshirts is a brilliant book, a great read, and will appeal to anyone who has ever thrown a shoe at a TV.

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