Free Drink Friday; Mirror Mirror

I’ve admitted this before – I watch Top Chef and Project Runway. But this isn’t about them, just about something one of the judges in Top Chef happened to say last season that made me think more about certain things.

So, if you’re at all familiar with the formats, you have contestants who are faced with a challenge every episode, and during the course of these challenges they sit in front of a camera one at a time and talk about the challenge, about each other, about themselves, etc. Most of the time they’re dissin’ on the competition or whining about the challenge. Loads of times they’re mocking the other people, mocking the judges, mocking the public in general.

It can be very telling. And I wonder sometimes if they realize how they’re coming across. And so did one of the judges last season when he was grilling the final group of contestants — who at the time were whining about how each of the OTHER ones had been acting in the kitchen — he looked at them and said “You realize these interviews are your opportunity to portray yourself as the professional Chef you all hope to be, don’t you? Is this really the image you want everyone to see when they think of you?”

That’s not a direct quote, by the way. I can’t confidently recall his exact words, but the meaning was clear – and it’s one I’ve been pondering myself more and more lately, and it’s what I would put to you if you’re reading this. (if you’re not reading this, feel free to skip to the bottom).

What image are YOU putting out there? On the internet, in blogs, in public. What image do you want your readers to have of you? What do you want them to think when they finish one of your novels and wonder what the author is like who could come up with such a brilliant piece of fiction?

If you’re flitting around the web, leaving pieces of yourself here, there, and everywhere, do you own your words? Are you being true to yourself and who you are, regardless of where you go or what you say?

Forget what your Mom might find while she’s hunting down recipes for brownies this holiday season — what about your potential fans?

How would you like them to see you?

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Literal Foundations

I was, in my wanderings around on the internets, presented with this link. It’s an article by Ian Sales, on his blog. Go read it, because it’s what we’re going to be talking about today. I’m going to go make a cuppa, and then I’ll be waiting for you to get back.

All done? Right. Let’s get to it.

In his article, Ian Sales is rather against classic science fiction, for quite a number of reasons, very few of which wash for me. He points out that modern SF is obsessed with the past, declares that we shouldn’t hold up the classic stories (Stranger in a Strange Land, Foundation, Make Room! Make Room!, The Stars my Destination, etc) as, er, classics. We should not look to the bedrock of our genre, nay, we should look into the future. He declares that we, “we” being SF, are obsessed with the past and far too reverent of it. And then he goes on to declaim the stories on the basis of their plots, their writing styles, the inconsistencies…

…right.

It’s a fairly baffling article. I’m not outraged by it — although he suggests that we, across the internet, shall be as he slaughters the sacred cow. I guess if he’d done so, I might be, but he really didn’t. With respect to Mr. Sales, it feels more like standing on a soapbox and hollering ineffectually than actually putting the hammer to the cow, if you see what I mean.

Let’s get into it.

First, he suggests that it is a folly to present someone coming into SF with a copy of Foundation, or a copy of Nightfall (by Asimov, both of them), to present them with a collection, perhaps, of classic short stories edited by John Campbell. We shouldn’t do this, because it’s not representative of modern SF, it’s offensive to the reader, and the writing is poor.

They’re classics for a reason, and it’s generally not just mindless worship and awe. The thing about a book like Foundation is that it is undeniably readable. Is it clunky in places? Perhaps. Does it feel dated? Well yeah. (He suggests we treat these things like historical documents, and they are: they are a look at the future, as imagined in decades long past). But despite faults, they are readable stories that are compelling and exciting. They are packaged nicely in modern covers and frankly, if you are wet behind the ears and just coming into science fiction, I doubt that the first thing you’re aware of is that Foundation is an old story. I certainly wasn’t. I had been reading science fiction for a long time before I started paying attention to when these things had come out.

My other problem is the moment we take, in Ian Sales’ article, to deconstruct the story Nightfall by Isaac Asimov. We discuss how the writing is clunky, and feels like 1940’s America, how the twist is given away on the first page, and so on and so forth. This argument never works. Not ever. I remember watching all the extras, for example, on the Lord of the Rings DVDs where you have these authors and editors and literary critics pointing out all the flaws in the Lord of the Rings. All the things that were done in those books, by that nice Tolkien fellow, which are Not Done In Books. And yet, they are done. And generally, there is puzzlement about why the books worked.

You get the same thing with Harry Potter. The writing isn’t always top-notch. Occasionally it’s amateurish. So why on earth do they sell? Why on earth, with Asimov’s clunky writing (and it is, he had limitations and he was cheerful in admitting them) is he popular?

Because story trumps all, and readability has very little to do with things that are, or are not, To Be Done In Books. You cannot deny the flaws in Nightfall, and they are as Mr. Sales declares them. The trick is, you have to step past those and go “But as a reader, it’s a pretty kicking story.” And it’s true. It baffles the hell out of some writers and critics, some editors, but stories that are good stories…are good stories. It’s not being reverent, it’s having a little shiver.

(The other dangerous thing to do, and it bothers me when people do it, is to deconstruct a story and declare it Bad And Faulty, based on their personal tastes. If I dislike a book, and I have specific problems with it, that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad book. It just makes it a book that doesn’t work for me.)

The other problem I have with the article is that, although he gives us an example of how lousy these old time stories are, he gives us no examples on two topics. First: Mr. Sales does not suggest what books, of the modern range of SF, I should be recommending to new SF readers. If I do not recommend I, Robot, then what do I recommend in its stead? What is its modern equivalent as a gateway drug? If I do not recommend Ringworld, then what modern book do I suggest in its stead?

Second: Mr. Sales does not indicate where, and how, and in what ways we all seem to be obsessed with the past, with the classics of SF. And that’s the more troubling portion of the article, because it’s the whole basis for his stance. Where are we obsessing? I dearly love Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Ellison, Bradbury, and on and on. I adore the pulp era, I have books of short stories edited by John W. Campbell, jr. But mostly because I like to read them, for pleasure. I don’t gaze at them with stars in my eyes and go “I MUST BE HIM WHEN I GROW UP.” And frankly, I don’t see that many people who do. Mostly, people stand on the past. They stand on the classical literature, they stand on the bones. THey stand on the…foundation…but they don’t get down on their hands and knees and obsess with the details and textures in the surface.

Mostly, what I see in modern SF are books by people who, yes, probably did read the classics. But I rarely read books where it feels like the author is going “I must be just like him,” and mostly, they seem to be “I want to do what he did.” And that doesn’t mean write a book about the Foundation. That means write a book that matters, to someone else, the way Foundation mattered to him.

If anything, you see the body of copycatting and obsession in high fantasy, in the world where we are forever rehashing and detailing and expounding only on Tolkien. Where occasionally, someone will break off and do something else, something unique and exciting and when they do…well, they’re mostly not high fantasy anymore. They’re something else, some other place on the bookstore shelves.

I always find it worrying when someone has an opinion (which they are entitled to, just like I am entitled to refute*) and assumes that this opinion is actually just a fact of the world and should be accepted by all others, rather than just a personal opinion. If Mr. Sales worries along these lines, then he should see to it that he does not gaze sweetly at the past but strives only towards the future without looking back, and leave it at that. That’s fine. It gets dodgy when the suggestion changes instead to thinking that the fault lies with the past itself, more than anything else.

Personally, I think it’s a fine thing to give someone classic science fiction, partially because it gives you a mental foundation, and a mental toolbox, from which to approach modern works, some of which may not be quite so easily readable. By reading Asimov’s works, you are prepared for the fine books of Timothy Zahn, prepared for something like Mainspring by Jay Lake. By reading Michael Moorcock, I think you are prepared to read something like Towing Jehovah. By reading any of them, you come away with a set of tools and definitions and thoughts which will make it easier to get into Gregory Bendford, Gene Wolfe, Jack McDevitt, and so forth. They’re gateway drugs. And you don’t obsess with those, you move into a new world (of reading, not drugs, in case you thought the article shifted with that metaphor) and you blaze a trail as you go.

(A final thought: When does something become a historical document? Are the 20’s pulp stories historical documents of clumsy writing that we should not look back on? What about the work in the 40’s? 50’s? 60’s? Seventies and eighties and nineties? What is the threshhold, past which we do ourselves a disservice to look? Certainly, I don’t know.)

* My entitlement to refute, Lori Basiewicz will be happy with me pointing out, is not because of freedom of speech or lack of censorship against me. Nossir. My entitlement to refute is because of that great and important benefit of the internet, which is: I am forever just out of punching reach.

Free Drink Friday; Bathroom-Break

Okay, so I haven’t posted in a few Friday’s, I know. But look – it got my partners in crime to post πŸ˜€

Anywhoo, I’ve made a discovery this week that kinda surprised me in a way, but it shouldn’t have, not really.

There I was, writing my brains out in my current novel – putting out more words per day than I even thought I could, having a great time (even though I did stumble and had to delete 15,000 of those words to get back on track). Only then, right in the middle of my forward charge, I had to stop writing completely so that I could prepare for – and then perform – an art show over a three-day period.

For several days prior, and then that whole 3-day period, my brain had to switch gears entirely and stop being a writer for a little bit.

Well that little commercial interruption is over now, and on Tuesday I sat down to pick up the novel again, and found . . .

Myself sitting there, staring at the screen.

My momentum was gone! My power surge had fizzled! My brain was taking these half-hearted little stabs at the plot and pacing and coming up short with each attempt.

Frustrated, I finally realized I had to fix this somehow and pulled out a pen and notebook. Once I cracked open that pristine, fresh notebook and started jotting down bullet points of the novel with the nice black pen, my brain’s writerly gears began moving again. Suddenly I could see the problems, and the easy ways to fix them all, and the story exploded once again in my mind’s eye and I was back in the saddle!

Praise Jeebus, I was writing again πŸ˜€

And I still am, since this novel is a big’un and not near done yet. But I’ve learned my lesson. Even if I’ve got a full plate, I have to at least keep a notebook handy, and jot things down. They might be notes of what already happened, or questions to ask myself about plot issues. Whatever it takes to keep that novel forefront and fixed in my conscious and unconscious minds.

So, have you derailed lately? Do you need a good slap in the ass? Give you Muse some spurs. Whatever it takes.

Just. Do. It.

Disaffected TV

Quite some time ago, I was turned onto a TV show called Wonderfalls by someone or another, I forget who, I think she writes on this blog, I think her name’s Lori. It was brilliant. It was thirteen episodes of tight and terrific writing, great acting, fun stories. It ranged wildly from happy, to sad, to heartbreaking. You got to the end of thirteen episodes and, having fallen in love, you were angry when you got no more.

(I cannot recommend highly enough that you go watch it on DVD. It’s only thirteen episodes. It won’t take long. Use your Law & Order: Nursing Home Unit time to watch this instead.)

Anyway, it’s fantastic. From some of the people who, along with Joss Whedon, brought us…

…Firely. A SF TV show which lasted for about thirteen episodes (conspiracy? I’ll get back to this in a minute) which was smart, and funny, and ranged all over from happy, to sad, to heartbreaking. You got to the end of the episodes and were miserable that you would get no more. Eventually, we got a movie (Serenity) and it served solely to make us want more, and to crush our hearts utterly. Why did we not get more of this, such as we did with…

…Dead Like Me. This is a show that was recommended to me over a period of weeks and months by some other person who posts on this blog, I don’t remember who, but it wasn’t me or Lori. I hadn’t gotten around to watching it. It’s their own damn fault because they demanded, on penalty of shattered knees, that I watch Doctor Who (And I am. And if Netflix ever repairs itself, I will continue to. It’s brilliant. And it’s not for this article). Dead Like Me is a fantastic show, although we at least got 2 seasons of that before it was cancelled. More than thirteen episodes, and I was relieved. It’s very much a sequel to Wonderfalls, in the terms of the main character, the personality, and the voice. This is Bryan Fuller’s fault, because he had his hand heavily in both series. It ranges all over, making you happy, and sad, and heartbroken, and…you see where I’m going with this.

I was already thinking about the pattern that was present in the mood, tone, and writing of all these shows. But it didn’t really clarify until yesterday when I sat down and actually started watching Dead LIke Me (My wife, purely by accident, discovered it and started watching it. And demanded that I do too. I can’t argue with a united front…) What I very much realized is that shows like Wonderfalls and Dead Like Me are written by, and aimed at, a specific audience. I think I’m aware of it, because it’s my generation.

I may be about to get ham-handed and dumb here, but let me talk it out.

The shows are very much geared toward the sort of people who grew up being the Disaffected Generation. Not necessarily Generation X, but the generation that came immediately after, which nobody had a letter for or knew what to do with…and so mostly, just ignored.

It’s for the generation who looks back fondly at Alanis Morissette albums (particularly, Jagged Little Pill) and Meredith Brooks.Β  People who bought Korn’s first album, and Rob Zombie’s first CD after he’d left White Zombie. People who watched Daria, and knew what MTV was, and were just getting to the point where the MTV Awards were still talked about, even if it was with scorn.

It’s the generation who was around 15-18 in the year 2000. The just-getting-started generation. The I-have-not-yet-begun-to-fight generation.

I’m not all that old. I say that in case any of you are under the misapprehension that I’m a sixty-year-old conspiracy theory nut and luddite crazy guy who throws rocks at squirrels and children. The rest applies, but I’m younger than that.

I’m young enough that although my musical interests range very far, and very wide, I still have fond memories of things like Jagged Little Pill and Daria because they came along about the same time that I really, for the first time, had a group of friends (I moved a lot, I was quiet, I never made many friends; it never bothered me). It was the first time I started dating. It’s that weird teenaged period when things seem so complicated, but in hindsight were never simpler. It remains crystal clear for the rest of your life.

Wonderfalls, and Dead Like Me, and to some extent, Firefly, is very much a resonance for that generation. Not necessarily saying “This is me!” but saying “I remember, and I was there too.”

It makes me wonder how old Bryan Fuller is (I haven’t Googled; I suppose I could have done instead of writing an article).

It’s interesting, because I’ve always wondered what, when my generation became something to focus on, would appear for us. And if things like this are any indication, what will appear will be well-written and interesting things with wide-ranging emotions and writing.

That’s cool by me.

The other interesting thing someone suggested to my wife, about why these brilliant shows only last for a handful of episodes, was a theory I hadn’t heard before. Normally, I hear “it’s too intelligent for your average television viewer,” which I believed because I lacked another theory.

But what someone suggested to my wife was that the shows are written for people who don’t watch television.

That’s interesting. They’re TV shows for people who aren’t really huge TV watchers. I just sat and thought about it and realized, as I thought, that I really agreed with it. It did make sense. They’re shows written for people who aren’t going to tune in slavishly to a lot of different things, and who might even sense that the story works better as a whole and wait for the first season on DVD (except that…no one watches…the show gets cancelled). It’s television written for people who still read books, who own CD collections, who do other things.

I like that theory. I don’t have a solution, an explanation, or anything, but I like the theory.

And this concludes this baffling, wittering article for your day.

Drinking Songs

I’ve got drinking songs running through my head. Things like, “What do you do with a drunken sailor?” and “The Scotsman.” The former has led my mind to ponder, other than putting him in the long boat, what do you do with a drunken sailor? What could you do with him?

Your Brain And You!

Reading an old journal entry from Neil Gaiman, he mentioned that he always intended (as a young man) to grow up and be a hard SF writer. Someone like Larry Niven, perhaps, and it was with surprise that he noted later on that he’d grown up to be nothing of the sort. (And, he added, that it shouldn’t have been a surprise because that wasn’t even what he read for pleasure.)

I think that’s really interesting, and accurate. Not just to Neil Gaiman, but to most writers on the planet. I know that I had a pretty specific idea of what kind of writer I wanted to be, and what kind of writer I was…and then I wrote The Nondescript, a literary coming-of-age traveling carnival novel and discovered, to my confusion, that I was absolutely not the writer I intended to be. I’m now off in the middle of The Neon God, which is SF…but it isn’t even the sort of SF I ever thought I’d write.

I always planned to a space opera writer. Growing up, I wanted to be E.E. “doc” Smith, perhaps. Write Star Trek-esque books, because those were the ones I enjoyed. I like big space operas, I like stories where ships are taken for granted, space travel is woven into the fabric of the novel. Faster-than-light drives are as taken for granted as…well, I was going to say gravity, but I guess that doesn’t hold true. Anyway, you see what I mean.

It’s what I wrote as a younger man: I wrote serials set on starships. And then, for lots of reasons, I stopped and went away and wrote other things.

It’s all somewhat on my mind, because I constantly have, in the back of my mind, a weird feeling of discombobulation (if ever there was a word that sounds like Calvin & Hobbes invented it…) which comes from being aware that I’m out somewhere without a map now.

It really came to the foreground when, as part of my Edge of the Universe network attempt (that nobody read I am not bitter I am not drinking heavily nossir) I tried to do a serial, set on a starship, following an old storyline from a new angle. I tried to go back again, as it were. And you can never do that.

It didn’t work. The story was there, the ideas and themes and good writing were all there…but my head wasn’t. I wasn’t interested. I discovered that I no longer had things to say on this area. It faltered out, because it wouldn’t be written in miserable cold blood and remain interesting for very long.

Instead, I really caught fire with my Book of Grey serial (you should go read the first seven episodes. Honest. It’s some of my best work. No, really!) because that was what I had to say at the moment.

What this says to me is this: We have layers as writers, true. We have layers of desire, also. There is the writer that we want to be, and there is the writer that we hope to be…and then there is the writer which we become.

Neil Gaiman wanted to be a hard-SF writer, and he hoped to be Larry Niven. He became a writer whose style we can now call Neil Gaiman comfortably.

I wanted to be E.E. “doc” Smith and Star Trek and Star Wars and all manner of good space operas. I hoped to be…well, I think I hoped without telling myself to be someone like Harlan Ellison, Gene Wolfe, Walter M. Miller, Jr., and so forth. I think where I’ve landed is closer to my hopes than my wants. And that’s fine.

The other nice thing about being a writer is, you’re rarely landed for long. I’m sure I’ll write and write any day now and have a mental breakthrough, come into understanding of something which rewrites everything in my head. And then I’ll be somewhere else as a writer.

That’s just fine, because there are deeper parts to your mind. The parts that turn mighty engines and powerful gears and which do lifting for you as a writer, which is heavier than you know. These deeper parts, they’re like something out of a Lovecraft story: They are too big and too old and too powerful, and they coil beneath the still waters of your consciousness, slipping beneath the waves and giving you only a glimpse of moving black oil. They are too much for you to comprehend.

But they aren’t menacing, not really: they know what they’re doing. Those bits of your brain know where you’re going to land and how you’re going to come out as a writer (or you might not: you might want to be a writer, and your mind might point out that actually, you need to be something else). The deeper parts, they’ll see you safely.

The biggest trick is just trusting, letting go, and getting out of their way.

(And put like that, it sounds so easy.)

Conversations – Memory of Humankind

LORI: There was a job ad in Publishers Lunch for an editor at the NY Public Library. This was the description of the “company.” I really like the first two sentences.

Libraries are the memory of humankind, irreplaceable repositories of documents of human thought and action. The New York Public Library is such a memory bank par excellence. The New York Public Library comprises simultaneously a set of scholarly research collections and a network of community libraries, and its intellectual and cultural range is both global and local, while singularly attuned to New York City. That combination lends to the Library an extraordinary richness.

PETE: What they forget to mention is that the NY Public Library is ALSO astonishingly gorgeous, absolutely amazing, and has weird rambling rooms…and a collection of original Charles Addams works of art, if you follow the signs for the second floor men’s room and then keep going a little ways.

And in a ruined future world, it’s also the Abbey of St. Bede the Venerable. πŸ™‚

It would be thirty kinds of utter awesome if you got a job at the New York library, Lori.

(got kind of sidetracked there)

I DO think that libraries are the memory banks of humankind. And they are ones designed to last, and to be around for a long time. If we look at society and use a human being as an analogy, then the internet is human beings talking to one another, and libraries are what we’ve learned, and what we carry with us.

I hope.

I always get a little nervous when I see the banks of computers in libraries, all full of people. But I get reassured when I can’t get to a book I want because the aisle’s full of people too.

KRISTINE: Damn, I’d love to see that place πŸ˜€

I just hope the memory of humankind never gets Alzheimer’s.

PETE: Dementia, certainly… πŸ™‚

http://www.dangerouslyirrelevant.org/NewYorkPublicLibrary.jpg

A nice picture of one part of it. It’s huge and fantastic. You get some wonderful shots, inside and out, of the library in The Day After Tomorrow. Which, Ironically, I used to get a layout of the place for Neon God… πŸ™‚

Looking at library pictures led me to this page:

http://www.futureofthebook.org/blog/archives/2005/02/non_merci.html

With an article and a picture, but what I thought was especially interesting was the pair of comments at the bottom. Particularly the second one.

And then I clicked another link and went to this article:

http://www.futureofthebook.org/blog/archives/2005/02/harnessing_the_collective_mind.html

And now I want to poke around Future Of The Book’s Blog some more…