Sunday, January 25, 2009


I'm going to be away for a few days, and I don't know whether I'll have the chance to Internet while I'm away. (Jeez. I just made "Internet" a verb. Somebody stop me!)

I'll try not to invent any new verbs for the rest of this post.

Since I won't be talking to you, why don't you talk to me? Tell me to what, or to whom, I should be listening.

Music used to be a huge part of my life: I've got thousands of LPs, probably another couple thousand CDs. A few years ago most of my CDs got stolen, and I replaced them with even more CDs.

Yet I seem to be spending less time listening to music. Part of it is that I'm just very busy, and rarely seem to sit in the same place long enough to listen to a whole CD, yet partly I don't listen because when I do, I'm uninspired. When I turn on the radio, I hear a depressing sameness. Or, worse, a depressing familiarity. So much of contemporary music seems to be a pastiche of earlier stuff that was better.

My musical tastes are pretty eclectic. I listen to blues, jazz, soca, rai, and Balkan Beat Box. I listen to classical and opera. Sage Walker turned me on to strange neo-Norse revival stuff, and "kulning" is now a word in my vocabulary. I've never really got excited by rap, though I've heard some rap from Thailand that was pretty strange and cool.

Assume, for the purposes of this post, that I've got classic rock pretty well covered.

To whom should I be listening?


Saturday, January 24, 2009

And the Award Goes To . . .

My story "Pinocchio" happens to be listed in the Table of Contents.
Coincidence? Perhaps not!


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Diaz, Delany, Dinner

Last night Daniel, Ty, and I drove up to Santa Fe to enjoy dinner with Samuel R. Delany and Junot Diaz. Junot was doing a reading at a local theater, after which Chip would interview him--- the event was completely sold out, by the way, we could only get tickets in the next-to-last row of the balcony.

Junot, incidentally, is so totally brilliant that he blurbed Daniel's novels, which is a sign of good taste in my world.

Joining us were George RR Martin, Ian Tregillis, Emily Mah, Terry England, and Parris.

Delany was gracious and funny. He was genuinely pleased that I teach his Nova at Toolbox.

Junot was extremely funny. ("Ayn Rand is a disease of white people. A black person would start reading Atlas Shrugged and think, 'Whooaa, what is this shit?")

And as an immigrant of color, he was totally gabberflasted by Obama's being elected president. He kept bringing it up.

His Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by the way, is the only Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to begin with an inscription from Galactus, and is full of references to science fiction, Lord of the Rings, comics, and RPGs. (Trujillo, the novel informs us, "suffered four hundred hit points" of damage during his assassination.)

Junot mentioned in the subsequent interview that he wasn't just riffing on these elements, he had something in mind. He was describing the inner life of a Dominican immigrant, and of Dominican experience, for a USian audience, and thought that the best way to describe the horror and madness and genius of Santo Domingo was to approach it as an alien world, through the medium of science fiction.

Which I totally understood, because that's how I approached New Mexico when I wrote Days of Atonement. The only way to describe New Mexico to someone who hasn't spent time here is to think of it as an alien world.

So we discussed RPGs, and he mentioned that he'd played a lot of FGU's Space Opera, which had so terrified me with the World's Most Vast and Cumbersome Character Generation Rules that I'd never dared to approach it. (Oh, we totally geeked out on our sad, wasted youth, practically rolling 2D10 at each other.)

Chip and Junot didn't eat anything, because the folks who had invited them to New Mexico were taking them to dinner after the talk, so they watched us eat. Then we trooped over to the packed theater and listened to the reading, with Junot paying very close attention to the young folks in the audience and cracking jokes about his own work as he read it, after which Chip began his very intelligent, very sensitive interview. (He is someone I would like to interview me.)

And then the event came to an end, and Chip and Junot were born off on the shoulders of the crowd to wherever they were going to get dinner.

And while this was going on, Kathy was geeking out in a whole different way, down in Socorro listening to Kari, Grant, and Tory from Mythbusters. They've done a show down at EMRTC, blowing things up I assume, and on a campus like Tech would be complete folk heroes, and--- like us--- Kathy was lucky to get a ticket.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Man of the Year

Can I just pause for a moment and express my relief that we now have a president who speaks my language?
By which I mean English.
I was not an early Obama supporter (in my hopeless, quixotic way, I liked Bill Richardson, whose campaign has now ended in a grand jury investigation), but my modest late conversion to the Obama cause may give me certain advantages. I don't think the man walks on water, I don't think he can wave a magic wand and make the badness go away, and I think he will make a lot of mistakes before he finds his feet.
But when I consider that I was born in an era when Jim Crow ruled vast areas of the country, and when the 82nd Airborne had to be sent into American cities to secure children of color the right to attend high school, I have to freakin' marvel at the path this nation has taken.
I mean, our president is a self-identifying black man who's named Barack Hussein Obama! How cool is that?
So, for the moment, I am happy to bask in my nation's glory.
And meanwhile, I would like to offer a prayer to our new president.
Please, Mr. Obama, please sir, please please please pleeeeeeeaase . . . Don't Fuck Up.

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Newly Reviewed

This Is Not a Game has been awarded a starred review in Publisher's Weekly.
Williams (The Rift) weaves intriguing questions about games, gamers and their relationships with real life into this well-paced near-future thriller. Game designer Dagmar specializes in creating “alternate reality” games that muddle the line between fantasy and reality. Trapped in riot-torn Jakarta, she reaches out to the gamer community for help. Once back in Los Angeles, Dagmar is caught up in a web of murders and financial manipulation that she begins to blend into her latest game, using the community of players to solve clues and sift through large amounts of data. The line between real life and the game blurs as the action builds to a satisfying and thoughtful conclusion. Though the technology talk occasionally becomes intrusive, it's convincingly written; the characters are realistic and absorbing, and the story deeply compelling. (Mar.)
Who am I to disagree?

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Writer Geeks

So here's my latest literary complaint.

I've just finished a book that was written by, let's face it, a geek. And the geekness was, alas, there for all to see.

And let me state loudly and clearly that I have nothing against geeks. Geeks know cool stuff--- which is sort of the definition of a geek, someone who is a colossal obsessive expert on, well, something or other. If I need a computer repaired or assembled, I'd get a computer geek. If I want to hike a wilderness, I'd talk to a wilderness geek. If I want to find out something about railroads, I'd talk to a railroad geek. If I want to know about the uniforms and equipment of Civil War regiments, I'd talk to a Civil War geek, or a recreationist geek.

But I've come to the conclusion that I don't want my fiction written by geeks. Because there are many geeks who are so into whatever their lives are about that they failed to acquire an actual life.

I don't want to read a fantasy novel by someone who has spent his entire life reading fantasy novels. I don't want to read an SF novel by someone who knows the throw-weight of every rocket ever built but has never moved out of his mother's basement. I don't want to read military fiction by someone who's played Squad Leader 80,000 times--- and I really don't want to read military fiction by someone who knows every single thing about war except an idea of what it's actually like to be in combat!

(Instead they'd just have a theory of what it's like to be in combat--- x percentage of soldiers will hyperventilate, y percentage will soil their drawers, a Tower musket has a 40% chance of hitting a target at 100 yards' range, but the opposing soldiers in ranks three-deep have a 1/3 chance of making their saving roll.)

There are writers who have never done anything in their entire lives but stare at a book, or sit in front of a keyboard, or hunch over a game board. And (as Jonathan Strahan and I lamented to each other at WFC last year), you can always tell, just by reading their work, who they are.

Instead of engaging in normal human intercourse, a geek writer's characters will spend all their time lecturing each other, even--- especially--- in situations where no normal person would do that. Geeks all have their special cool trivia they think is really neat. They will download at you, and do it mercilessly.

If our geek's writing about the Civil War, say, and two soldiers are meeting, they won't grouse about their officers, or talk about getting laid, or fantasize about their next leave, or complain about the chow, which is what real soldiers do. Instead they'll talk about the relative merits of the Austrian rifle vs. the Springfield, or criticize Johnston's tactics at the Battle of Shiloh.

They're not soldiers. They're soldier geeks. They're not engaging in soldierly behavior, they're engaging in geekly behavior.

Or if they're not soldiers, they're medieval ladies discussing the merits of herbs, or English lords discussing the Corn Laws, or Georgian ladies chatting on about Whig politics, or total strangers agreeing on why socialism is a bad idea and why capitalism will inevitably flourish (under the wise guidance of all-knowing entrepreneurs such as themselves, of course).

Human relationships, on the contrary, tend to be a little more shaky in your geek novel. It helps if the main character's in charge of everything all the time, in total command of reality due to her ability to lecture everyone else ad infinitum, and there's only one suitable character of the opposite sex on the horizon. Then she and he can be Destined for each other, and only the fact that armies of orcs keep separating them keeps them from fulfilling their destiny right away.

Or our geek writer takes Lord of the Rings as a dating guide, and the Object of Desire remains as remote as Arwen until the quest is over and a wedding date can be set.

Or the geek has a whole Theory of Relationships, and someone can give a lecture on how Men are thus-and-so, and Women are this-and-that (at least 85% of the time), and therefore romantic satisfaction will be achieved in at least 65% of cases.

Geek fiction contains no irony. Everything is very deadpan and sincere. Dark Lord equals Dark Lord. Hero equals Hero. Lecture equals Reality. Magic Sword does not equal Big Penis.

(Connie Willis maintains that irony is essential to real literature. I've pretty much decided she's right on the money.)

I note that there seems to be a sizeable audience out there for geek fiction. I imagine geek fiction is read by geeks, who don't know the difference between geek fiction and any other kind.

(However sad, this is not a bad marketing strategy. Geeks probably read more books than anyone. Get your books in solid with the right kind of geeks, and you've found your commercial niche [at least 85% of the time]).

That was irony, by the way. Just in case you missed it.

Despite my complaints I have a degree of sympathy for geek authors. While I was never quite a geek, I've spent a lot of my life enjoying geek hobbies. I've played board games and RPGs, I read SF and fantasy, I read a lot of history and biography, and when I play Trivial Pursuit I almost always win.

But I've never mistaken my hobbies for real life. I've always craved real life, even when I didn't have one. I've sought out life, even when I didn't know how. I've always tried to live real life, even when I didn't have a clue.

I travel a lot. I talk to strangers. I eat their candy.

It's inevitable that for the sort of fiction I write, I have to do research. I do tons of research, and inevitably so much third-hand material will result in a certain amount of geekiness being present in my writing. But when it's at all possible, I try to talk to primary sources. To find out about combat I don't read a book by Bernard Cornwell, who despite his comprehensive knowledge of combat has never actually been in a war. Instead I try to talk to an actual veteran. To find out what it's like to be shot I talk to someone who's been shot. To learn about science I talk to actual scientists. Or at the very least I'll try to read books by those people.

So jeez, guys, get out of the basement!

Because there's only one way to know about life, and that's by getting one.

PS: You know the definitive geek science fiction novel? Starship Troopers. There's just no real anywhere in this book.

Kinda weird, because Heinlein wasn't a shut-in by any means. But he had theories of war and society, and he was going to tell them to you, and he did.

I loved Starship Troopers when I was, say, fourteen. I had no reality to test it against.

But now, oh lord. The book so totally fails the Irony Test.

There's so much other Heinlein I'd rather remember.


Over the Line

This video is just so wrong.

(Thanks to Greg Frost)


Friday, January 16, 2009

I Relax

I'm off to a relaxing weekend hideaway. I'll be getting massages and visiting hot springs. I may be too relaxed to even think of checking in here for a few days.

You are at liberty to envy me.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Reviews Too Late: Generation Kill

On the recommendation of Ian and others here, I checked out the HBO series Generation Kill, which then inspired me to read the book by Evan Wright, which I was enjoying until I lost my copy before I could finish it. (If you've got the book, please return it. The library wants it back. Thank you.)

Evan Wright was a reporter embedded with the Marines' First Recon Battalion during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Recon Marines, for those who don't know, are an elite group trained to operate in small, independent units for purposes of reconnaissance, ambush, and setting up sniper attacks. Their teams generally operate under their NCOs, and the officers mainly stay home in Pendleton or wherever and do the paperwork.

Of course, war being what it is--- a vast collision of fuckups--- First Recon wasn't used this way in the war. Instead they were given a bunch of broken-down thin-skinned Humvees found in other units' scrap heaps, were provided with inadequate amounts of gun oil, batteries for night vision gear, intelligence, and food, and then told to roll hell-for-leather to Baghdad, driving deliberately into every Iraqi ambush along the way.
Instead of operating under the command of the NCOs the men knew and trusted, they were placed under the command of officers they didn't know, and for the most part soon learned not to trust at all.
The officers, who normally would not have seen a lot of action, soon realized that this was their one chance for glory and promotion. It is safe to say that most of them would happily have charged to victory over a pyramid of their own soldiers' dead bodies, and that their failure in this ambition was chiefly due to their own incompetence. The panic-prone captain known as Encino Man, for example, was prevented from calling artillery down on his own position only by virtue of the fact that he completely bungled the radio protocols. Another officer, Captain America, was fond of randomly shooting into buildings and of bayoneting captives.
The battalion operated under the command of a man who used the call sign "Godfather." While he was clearly intelligent and dedicated, it's also clear that he was ambitious to the point of recklessness. Among his other accomplishments was ordering his battalion into a Passchendaele-like wave assault on an airfield he believed to be defended by enemy armor, when (1) all his command were in thin-skinned vehicles, and (2) the battalion possessed absolutely no weapons capable of damaging tanks. Massacre was only prevented by the revelation that the airfield wasn't defended at all. (The Iraqis had realized well before the US command that there isn't a whole lot of point in defending airfields when your whole air force consists of smoking holes in the ground.)
Godfather also had a George Patton-like obsession with grooming standards--- as if his unit, rolling through one ambush after another, didn't have enough to worry about, they were now obliged to care about mustache length.
It was not surprising, then, that the inept officers soon began to conspire against the one officer who stood out due to his decency, caring, and competence.
So . . . what did HBO make of this story? Seven hours of riveting television, that's what!
The series is filled with terrific acting, superb writing, and that air of authenticity that comes with having a couple real First Recon soldiers playing themselves, and showing the others how Marines behave.
Particularly well done is the sensation of driving into the fog of war. This is reportage, not big-screen Hollywood drama. The viewer knows only what the soldiers knew at the time--- and quite frankly, it's enough to scare you silly.
Of course, to watch this series you have to spend seven hours in the company of Recon Marines. Which is to say among young men who are profane, arrogant, racist, voluble, macho, sexist, and trained killers. There is one whole female American in the whole series, and when she turns up they treat her like a whore.
Seven hours gives the creators a chance to treat each character as a rounded human being, rather than the usual squad of stereotypes (the All-American, the Token Minority, the Kid from Brooklyn, the Intellectual, etc). But because this is TV, some of the characters are composites, and some liberties are taken with the personalities of some of the characters. (I have to wonder what the real-life Corporal Trombley thinks of his portrayal as a racist cracker eager to grease Iraqis, whereas the book showed him more sympathetically as a half-trained newbie desperate to prove himself among his more experienced comrades.)
The series was filmed in Namibia and South Africa, which doesn't exactly look like Iraq, but at least looks more like Iraq than Southern California.
The book has won an award from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation.
Jon-Bob says, check it out.
Oo-rah. Carry on.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Reviews Too Late: Sukiyaki Western Django

So what do we call this one? Soba Western, maybe?

The only thing I know for sure is that Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest gets another workout.

The gore-soaked Red Harvest was first adapted for the screen in Roadhouse Nights (1930), apparently a seriocomic version starring Charles Ruggles. Then Kurosawa stole Hammett's plot for Yojimbo (1961), still by far the best adaptation. Then Sergio Leone made A Fistful of Dollars (1964) using the story, and Sergio Corbucci used it again in another spaghetti western, Django, just two years later in 1966. Then Walter Hill returned the story to the USA for Last Man Standing (1996), with Bruce Willis, and with Akira Kurosawa given story credit.

All of these versions--- except maybe the Charles Ruggles--- get plundered for the latest adaptation, Sukiyaki Western Django, written and directed by Takashi Miike, who is better known for extreme horror and yakuza films.

We open with a frame story starring Quentin Tarantino, who plays a gunfighter named Ringo living in Japan a couple centuries after the twelfth century Minamoto-Taira wars. (The film's creators have realized that in order to get Western distribution for some piece of Asian weirdness, it's best to get Tarantino involved on some level or other. At any rate, Tarantino is the only Westerner in this Western.)

Ringo does some serious six-gun violence to some bad guys while remarking, "the sound of the Gion Shoja temple bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sala flowers reveals the truth that to florish is to fall. The proud do not endure, like a passing dream on a night in spring; the mighty fall at last, to be no more than dust before the wind." (He does about as well with this line as you might expect.) Then he settles down to eat some sukiyaki brewed up by a local woman who is obviously impressed by his mad skillz. The set in which this scene takes place holds two important visual icons, a Western windmill and Mt. Fuji, which between them pretty much define the cultural landscape on which this film maneuvers.

We then move to a Western town called Utah or Yuta, which is still divided between the Minamoto and Taira clans, here using their alternate names of Genji and Heike. Genjis dress in white, and Heike are in red. Into the town rides a nameless gunslinger, played by Hideaki Ito--- who in real life is a total Western freak, and who provided his own costumes for the film. (I had last seen him playing the Minamoto emperor in the supernatural thriller Omyonji.)

Red Harvest follows, along with the occasional freaky cross-cultural moment. (At one point the Heike leader points out that the sound of the Gion Shoja temple bells echoes the impermanence of all things, and that this means the Heikas are doomed. His followers are downcast, but then Boss Heike pulls out a copy of Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part I. "Don't you know your Shakespeare?" he demands. "This is the War of the Roses! The Reds win!" He changes his name from Minamoto no Yoshitsune to Henry, and his followers cheer up and charge off to battle.)

Unfortunately these goofy moments are too few and far between. Mostly the film is a standard spaghetti western, in this case with extreme cruelty and ultra-violence. The Japanese actors speak English throughout the film, and few of them are comfortable with either the language or the slangy period dialect (Imagine a samurai barking out, "What are you fixin' to do, stranger?") Some of the Engrish is incomprehensible: I recommend employing the subtitles.

There are some terrific manic moments, some wacky comedy, but mostly it's a remake of A Fistful of Dollars with dollops of Buddhist philosophy.

I wish it had been stranger. I'd recommend re-viewing Yojimbo, or even better re-reading the book.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

Capsule Reviews

Brief takes on some media I watched over the holidays.

Tropic Thunder: Not only very funny, particularly if you know anything about Hollywood, but the best vehicle for Tom Cruise in ages.

Note: the movie got condemned by the politically correct for use of the word "retard." If this offends you, be aware that the word "retard" is deployed frequently in this film, along with a whole lot of other offensive words. (This is a Ben Stiller film, after all.)

13 Tzameti: Meh. I seem to be the only person who's seen this film who isn't raving about it. I thought that, for a film made in France on a budget of what seems to be a couple hundred bucks, it wasn't bad.

It's about a young man, Sebastian, working to restore the house of a man under police surveillance. His employer dies, leaving him (a) in the lurch financially, and (b) to find a mysterious letter giving even more mysterious directions to a hidden rendezvous. Scenting money, Sebastian takes his employer's place, and follows the directions.

This was a decent noir-ish beginning, if a little slow and borrowed from Antonioni's The Passenger (which wasn't slow, but glacial). I figured our hero would get involved in a complex, Hitchcockian plot, but instead he finds himself in a . . . wait for it . . . russian roulette ring! Most of the movie then follows the russian roulette game, in which twelve or thirteen candidates blow each other's brains out over the course of maybe an hour.

The film is very straightforward. There aren't a lot of surprises past this point. You know that Sebastian's going to end up in the finals. There's a twist at the end that isn't very surprising, either.

I kept comparing it in my head to the knotty little film I would have made from the same premise, and finding it not very interesting.

Little Miss Sunshine: Three generations of a desperately unhappy family head West in order to watch the youngest member of the group compete in a children's beauty contest. Each family member has a different philosophy of life--- I particularly liked the teenage boy who reads Nietzsche and has taken a vow of silence, and Alan Arkin as the hedonistic, heroin-snorting grandpa.

Funny, but the humor is very, very bleak.

Only Angels Have Wings: I read a Cary Grant biography recently that offered the theory that Grant was the first big male star without macho, thus paving the way for actors like (say) Johnny Depp. Whoever offered the theory hadn't seen Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings (1939), in which Cary Grant out-machos a whole squadron of hard-boiled pilots. (Hawks, come to think of it, made something of a specialty of showing macho characters in ways that weren't offensive.) Set in South America, the film involves the suicidal hazards of flying the mail over the Andes. Jean Arthur plays the love interest, and there's also a nice part for a young Rita Hayworth. If you like Thirties melodrama, you'll like this.

Army of Shadows: This 1969 film about the French resistance was made by a director who actually served in the French resistance. Perhaps that accounts for its slow pace and the fact that no one in this film outruns a massive explosion or transmits vital Nazi secrets to FDR or is played by Tom Cruise. The film has a near-documentary style, and eschews melodrama whenever possible. I was never very excited by the film, but on the other hand I had the idea that it was very possibly true.


Urban Fantasy

Carrie Vaughn, author of the Kitty books, analyses urban fantasy.

Part One.

Part Two.

Part Three.

Smart stuff.

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

I Read

Balticon has released a podcast of my reading from Implied Spaces.

There's some advertising and other stuff at the beginning, but at least you have the pleasure of hearing that this is "One of the most riveting stories we've ever presented here . . . "

I fear I'm too modest to disagree with this assessment.

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Once More Into the Breach

I've begun work on Deep State, the next Dagmar book. Of course since you haven't read This Is Not a Game, you don't know who Dagmar is, and therefore the announcement will mean a lot less to you than it does to me.

But nevertheless. The book is begun.


Monday, January 05, 2009

Reviews Too Late: Lain

Serial Experiments: Lain (1998) is a kind of philosophical novel lightly disguised as a shojo anime. The frame story suggests it might be aimed at 13-year-olds, but the subject matter is--- not more grown-up exactly, but one that deals primarily with existential issues. I'm not sure what an actual 13-year-old would make of it.

There's very little violence, no sex, and little of the focus on relationships that one might expect in a shojo. Instead, we get a lot of dialog about the nature of reality, and of modern anomie and alienation. If Albert Camus decided to write an anime, this would be it.

Lain Iwakura --- who may be named after the late Mac Observer writer Rodney O Lain, who committed suicide in 2002--- is in junior high. Lain is a bit young for her age, somewhat socially retarded, though she has a posse of friends who try to convince her to be interested in the sorts of things that teenage girls are supposed to be interested in. Her chief friend is Arisu--- Japanese for "Alice"--- who is pretty clearly named after the Lewis Carrol character, but is in fact a very practical, feet-on-the-ground sort of Alice who will absolutely not go down the rabbit hole even as the apocalypse beckons and the rabbit hole seems the only remaining refuge.

Lain lives in a hideous world of urban alienation, suggested by the design's striking de-saturated colors (reminiscent of Boogiepop Phantom), a technique that creates strong divisions between light and shadow and tends to reduce people to anonymous silhouettes. When commuting to school, Lain stands by the train door staring out at the world, but is never shown going through the door. Her family consists of a snooty, uncommunicative older sister, a computer-geek dad who might care for her if he could be torn away from his viewscreen, and a mother whose chief mission is to prevent communication at all costs--- whenever conversation threatens to become meaningful, she pointedly reminds Lain of chores that have not yet been done.

The opening scene is of the suicide of another schoolgirl, Chisa, who topples from a tall building with a blissful smile on her face. A few days later, Lain and some of the other girls start receiving emails from Chisa, who informs her that she isn't really dead, but has abandoned the flesh and met God ("Kami-sama").

Lain decides to upgrade her computer so as to be able to receive more complex messages, a chore her geek dad is happy to help her with. Her friends also drag her to a hacker nightclub, Cyberia (a reference to the book by Douglas Rushkoff), where people keep mistaking her for a "wild girl," also called Lain. A local hacker, who had earlier ingested a microchip that speeded up his time sense, starts shooting up the club. Lain confronts him and tells him that there's no point in killing people, since everyone's connected anyway. This revelation terrifies the madman and causes him to shoot himself in the head.

Eerieness ensues. Weird psychedelic patterns lurk in the shadows. Lain begins to be followed by a couple Men in Black (who are actually two of the series' more sympathetic characters). We find out about a quasi-Masonic hacker order, the Knights of the Eastern Calculus--- "Knights" for short--- that is looking for God online. Online gamers begin to be pursued by spooky otherworldly children, who then kill them. Other versions of Lain begin competing for people's attention. Lain's computer expands until her room is full of circuitry bubbling in eerie green cryogenic fluids. Lain's sister begins to receive mysterious messages ordering her to "fulfill the prophecy." When she runs into another version of herself in the front hall, she goes catatonic and can only make modem sounds. A giant glowing image of Lain appears in the sky and is seen by thousands.

Chisa, the girl who committed suicide, drops out of the story early on (though she has a cameo toward the end). She's the trailhead, and once Lain gets on the track, Chisa's job is done, and the story forgets about her.

It is revealed that Lain's family isn't her real family, but actors hired to play her family. She is actually a construct, created by a scientist named Eiri Masami, who subsequently threw himself under a train. He also created her software, with which she is able to control reality both online and off.

We are also given a lot of lectures, some by God Himself. They reference Vannevar Bush (who tried to put together an early version of the Internet in the Forties), Majestic-12, Timothy Leary, Ted Nelson and Project Xanadu, John C. Lilly, and, um, lots more.

There are references to Cordwainer Smith and Marcel Proust. I'm sure this is the only work of fiction that unites the two.

God, in one of his lengthy monologues tells us that when the Internet (called "the Wired" in Lainspeak) is sufficiently mature, it will merge with the human collective unconscious using the Shumann Resonance as a carrier, at which point physical incarnation will become unnecessary and we all get to live in the web all the time and worship Kami-sama all the time. Rapture of the nerds!

But consider the source. Kami-sama, it turns out, is a rather shabby sort of god who appears to be literally held together with gaffer tape. In reality he's Eiri Masami, who uploaded himself before committing suicide, and who has proclaimed himself God and wants to get everyone permanently online so that they can worship him. He begins to deconstruct reality. Practically everyone dies, or flips their wig.

Lain--- who actually is the Internet, incarnated by Masami for reasons that I don't believe he ever explained--- begins to fall for Kami-sama's line, but is dragged back from the brink by her sensible friend Arisu just as the world approaches its twilight.

Lain = Internet = Kami-sama. But she's a rather retiring sort of goddess, and in an act of Buddhist self-abnegation begins to erase all record of herself from existence. In the end she's a sort of blissful ghost, seeing to the happiness of the other cast members, and drinking tea and eating madeleines with the actor who played her father. Or perhaps just a hallucination who looks like him.

Impressive, neh? If nothing else, you have to give the creators credit for reading widely!

But does it add up to more than the sum of its parts? Whole subplots are either forgotten (like Chisa and the whole "fulfill the prophecy" thing), or they turn out to be Lain's hallucinations, or one of the other Lain's hallucinations, or Kami-sama's, or the hallucinations/projections of Lain pretending to be someone else. The Knights and Cyberia and the madmen and the spooky murderous children seem to be trails that don't lead anywhere in particular. The series seems a little short on plot for its 13 episodes, many of which are just one damn psychedelic thing after another. Writer Chiaka Konaka has a background in horror, and horror (especially Asian horror) doesn't have to make sense.

Here's my problem: when reality is completely plastic, and at best temporary, and when characters are equally conditional, can we possibly care about their fates? When everything is nothing, then nothing is at stake.

But since the series is in large part about alienation, could it be that the creators anticipated this objection, and dismissed it ahead of time? Maybe we're supposed to be alienated from the series.

Maybe I'll have to see it again. Though I don't think I loved it well enough to actually do that.

Lain is a series both visually and intellectually stimulating, though your brain may find itself hungry again after a few hours.

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Guide For the Perplexed

Sunday, January 04, 2009


Since I had a cold, I took it easy over the holidays. I didn't manage much during this time other than visiting friends, watching videos, and reading books.

Much of my time was occupied reading one book in particular, a big thick science fiction novel of recent vintage, written by an author much esteemed by me (and by many others), and I finished it just as Charlie Stross initiated a discussion on his blog concerning why SF and fantasy titles have grown so freaking huge. The book I read stands as a case in point.

The work that occupied so much of my time was big--- more than 500 pages. The book would have been enormously better if someone had cut 200 of those pages--- in fact it wouldn't just have been better, it would have been an instant classic of the field.

For 150 of those pages, the characters just went off somewhere. It's as if I were writing a detailed, interesting story taking place in, say, Los Angeles. And then I had the entire cast pick up and go to Las Vegas for a week, and then for 150 pages I described every single thing that happend to those people while they were in Vegas, and then at the end of that time I returned them all to L.A. Nothing crucial happened while they were in Vegas, and the characters were the same people at the end of the trip than they had been at the beginning. They just spent 150 pages--- an entire novel's worth of narrative--- doing nothing that advanced either the story or our knowledge of the characters. (Okay, they may have had some interesting conversations, but they didn't say anything that couldn't have been said in the parts of the book where things were happening.) All the important exposition happens elsewhere, all the important character development happens prior to the trip.

And for that matter, the pacing in the rest of the book is pretty slow, too.

What the hell is going on here? Why is this bloat allowed to infect what would otherwise have been a fascinating story that would have kept me riveted to my chair? Didn't anyone notice that there were problems?

First of all, there was the author who wrote all those extra words. I can only assume that she/he felt they were necessary. What could the author have been thinking?

I've been known to write a bit long myself. (Ahem) And when I did, it was generally because I'd got stuck somewhere in Kansas or Nebraska. In order to get from Point A to Point Zed, I felt it necessary to travel through all the points in between.

Sometimes it is in fact necessary. But sometimes you can just open the next chapter with, "After he had stepped off the bus from Nebraska . . . " And if you can, you should.

Often when you see a lot of extra words, you can often blame the fact that the author's writing too fast. Or, as Blaise Pascal put it, "The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter." There are so many extra words because you're hurling them at the page as fast as you can type, without doing any real thinking about any of them. True craft requires time and thought, and if you don't have either of these things, then you'd better hope you can carry your readers along on energy.

I don't think that's what happened in this case. I think the author was so in love with her/his creation that he/she simply couldn't let go of it until she/he had told us every damn thing he/she knew. (It's as if L. Frank Baum had put everything he knew about Oz into the first book.) In which case Faulkner's "Kill your darlings" rule applies. Or Sam. Johnson's, "Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out."

It's the job of the editor, of course, to spot any problems in the text, and a 150-page-long problem is awfully hard to miss. So let's assume that the editor observed this problem. What happened then?

It's possible that the author simply refused to make changes. There certainly are such authors, people who insist that their words are sacred and that no one has the right to tamper with them. I've heard it said that Stephen King is such a writer, and the fact that he brought a book like The Stand back into print with all the extra bits that a judicious editor had previously made him cut makes a case for this.

I know the author of this book, though not particularly well. I suspect she/he is open to editing, but I don't actually know.

But if the final version of the book wasn't caused by the closed-mindedness of the author, how did the catastrophe come about?

Probably because editors don't seem to actually have the time to edit any longer. They've got a long list of books to publish every month, and their assistants have been fired as a cost-cutting measure and never replaced, and the book got dumped on their desk after another editor was fired, left, or got promoted. Plus they've got editorial board meetings where they throw the numbers around, and lunches with authors and agents, and meetings where they try to get the sales force pumped about the next quarter's books. (In other words, it's become the job of the editors to convince the sales force to do their job, the one they're being paid to do. Apparently if the sales folks are less than enthusiastic about the lead title, they don't try to sell it and they get paid anyway. Is there any other industry where this happens?)

Or the book was being published on a tight schedule and a major rewrite was impossible given the time frame. (When I first began writing, I was shocked to learn that nobody in publishing seemed to give a damn about deadlines. You could be late, it wasn't a big problem, they only got mad if you didn't tell them. But now, if you hand in a book a couple weeks late, you've lost your slot in the publishing schedule and you've probably lost all the promotion budget as well. When and how and why did that change happen?)

Anyway, it's sad. Because it's not just this book that has a problem with bloat and lack of focus, it's practically every other book I read in this field. Major writers--- major talents--- seem to have lost all skills when it comes to plotting and pacing.

And the books have far too many point-of-view characters, too.

I got so cheesed off at this kind of thing that I went and started the Taos Toolbox workshop in order to teach people how to plot. (You'd think that this post is a commercial for Toolbox, but it isn't, because I'm not doing one this year, I've got too much work.)

There are some days when I really want a job as an editor. I wouldn't just red-pencil stuff, I'd get a big paintbrush and paint whole chapters red. If the authors objected I'd paint them red. I'd axe characters, I'd demand that writers actually put endings on their books. I'd make them resolve the plot. I'd make them finish the story they started in the first place instead of starting a whole new novel halfway through. I'd chop all the scenes where the characters are wandering around Kansas or Nebraska.

And the main thing is, I'd cut about 200 pages from the middle of most of the books. Because those pages don't actually do anything except kill the trees they're printed on, they have no business being there because it's all one long stall until the end.

When you run out of story, end the book. Don't write another 200 pages, just end the freaking book! How hard can that be, people?

I almost dread reading SF now, because I know it's going to be such a hard slog. And I love SF, or at least I used to. I'm an SF person. I think like an SF person, I live like an SF person, I write SF for a living.

But I don't read it much anymore. Because, y'know, life is too damn short to spend it slogging through the bloat.

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

Thirty Years Before the Keyboard

January 1, 2009 is a memorable day for more than just the usual reasons.

As of today, I have been a full-time, professional writer for thirty years, earning my living exclusively by my craft.

God, I feel old . . .

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