Monday, May 31, 2010

Cat 1, Smoke Monster 0

Over on her blog, Cat Valente lets Lost have it with a multi-barrel chain gun. It had me hopping up and down and clapping my hands with glee, it did.

Lost is a science fiction show.

Now, they haven't wanted that label from the beginning. First, they assured us that everything had a real-world explanation and it was not science fiction or fantasy at all. This is obviously crap at this point, but they continue to insist in multiple interviews that Lost is a character-driven drama and not a genre show at all.

Oh, I get why you don't want the badge, kids. It may get you the geek love but no one will call your show art and the big meanie procedurals and high-budget crime dramas will kick sand in your show's face and laugh at you. There is a genre bias enforced by this kind of bad storytelling and mealy-mouthed interview sidestepping crap. But Lost is science fiction or at least it fucking was until this season when we suddenly landed in magical fantasy land and got a Dark Lord and a freaking GLOWCAVE and vague mystical nonsense and this is my angry face. I don't normally come down on the side of "get this fantasy shit off my screen" but damn, yo. You cannot resolve a science fiction plot with glowelves and a Dark Master. and has been since episode one. Most of the problems with Lost have in fact been because its creators are, frankly, genre snobs, and refuse to believe that anyone is interested in the mysteries of the show but are instead merely invested in their "characters." I put that in sarcasto-quotes because these characters are terrible, boring, flat, and idiotic. And the only ones anyone was attached to are dead or sidelined. Thanks for killing off all the non-whites and non-males except Kate, too. They do not get that the only people still watching are people who are interested in the island mysteries because they are genre fans. Everyone else peaced out a long time ago.

Incidentally, it's not like Lost is alone in this. Every time some producer claims a show isn't science fiction while standing in front of a huge spaceship set baby robot Jesus cries. Yes, BSG, I'M TALKING TO YOU.

But here's the thing, guys. If you don't want to get tarred with the SF brush, you don't get to play with our toys, either. That means you do not get any of the following exciting action figures: monsters, immortal beings, time travel, alternate universes, glowcaves, Egyptian mythology, electromagnetic magic, insta-healing, psychic powers, Dark Lords, Lords of Light, magical touched by an angel fatecakes, teleportation, mystical islands, or bodily possession. Get your sticky hands off them--you'll only break them. Make a sitcom and shut up, if you want to howl about not being SF. Make a gritty procedural. Make Thirty-Something, I don't know. But don't make an SF show and then prance around telling everyone it's SUPER REALISTIC while trying to conceal your painful giant quantum rabbit erection. You can't trot out all those shiny SF baubles and then refuse to develop them or treat them seriously. I've said it before: the difference between realism and non-realism is that realism has no interest in consistent world-building or rules, or even making anything have narrative logic, because those artists think their work takes place in the real world and therefore requires none of these things. The real world is already built, yo. It doesn't need explanations.

That's why nothing in Lost makes sense. Because to make it make sense you have to admit it's a science fiction show and explain why things happen. You have to treat your own story with respect, and not just wave your hands in the air and blabber about your characters which you never bothered to make engaging in the first place BECAUSE YOU WERE WRITING A SCIENCE FICTION SHOW AND THE MYTHOLOGY MADE UP FOR THE LACK OF AWESOME CHARACTERS. Jesus, it's like Golden Age SF Excuse 101. But the thing is, in their bitter, black hearts they know that the SF toys are COMPLETELY AWESOME.

There is literally not a single realist show that could not be made more awesome by adding robots, monsters, time travel, or magic. You can try to come up with one, but you will fail . . .

And much, much more.

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Green Leopard Ebook

Hey, have I mentioned that The Green Leopard Plague is available as an ebook?
And at a very reasonable price, too!


Untergang II: Enter the Man of Steel

It occurs to me that if you show these parodies in a certain order, they even have a plot.

Hearing that Hitler parodies are being removed from YouTube, Stalin makes his move:

Hearing that Stalin is moving in on their action, the Hitler parody writers react:

And now--- just because I feel like it--- Hitler reacts to the final episode of Lost.


Thursday, May 27, 2010


As have many of you, I've enjoyed the "Downfall Meme," in which a key scene of the 2004 film Der Untergang ("Downfall") is used to comment on issues of the day.

Alas, German movie dinosaur Constantin Film AG is now asserting ownership of these parodies--- which, it has to be said, vastly increased the popularity of their fine if depressing film--- and they are slowly being taken down wherever they are found.

There are still a few around, however, and here's one in which Hitler comments on the growing non-availability of Hitler parodies.

And, because Hitler just announced that he hates cats, and because I commented on Lost in my last update, I here present Lost Explained by Cats in 60 Seconds. Normally cute cat videos make me shudder in terror, but I found this one funny.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Idiot Plots

Let's say you're a cop. You're in pursuit of a serial killer. The killer knows you're after him and has already trashed your house and tried to murder a member of your family. What do you do?

A. Surround your family with guards.
B. Get your family out of town and to an undisclosed location where the killer can't find them.
C. A and B both.
D. Let your family go about their ordinary lives.

The option you pick is, of course, D. Though as you do this, perhaps there's a little whisper in your brain that says, Too bad you're caught in an idiot plot.

Let's say you're writing a space opera. Your heroes are fighting a bunch of runamuck robots who have killed 99% of humanity and are now either trying to kill the remainder or are trying to have sex with them. (Remember, they "have a plan.")

From a previous incarnation of your show you've inherited a scenario in which your heroes are looking for a lost colony which they hope will somehow save them. The problem, you realize as you try to bring this about, is twofold:

A. Either the colony is primitive with obsolete technology, in which case the robots will wipe them out, along with your heroes if they stay and fight, or;

B. The colony has super-advanced technology that will wipe out the robots, which is fine except then THEY then become your heroes instead of the characters you've been following all along.

How do you solve this dilemma?

A. Throw in a bunch of mystic stuff and prophecy so that you can justify whatever ending that out of total desperation you finally come up with.

B. Everybody gets to be either an angel or a robot.

C. Have the characters throw away all their technology and trust that God will sort it out.

D. All of the above.

Of course you pick D. Oh dear, you've created an idiot plot!

Let's say you're an actor on a TV series. You play a castaway on an island where weird and mysterious things keep happening. Strangely enough, your character also exists on some kind of parallel world where none of this occurred. Throughout the series, the producers have insisted that they know exactly where the story is going, that they worked it all out in advance, and that nobody has to worry because it will all make sense in the end.

Then you get the script for the final episode, in which you discover that your character HAS BEEN DEAD ALL ALONG and is JUST BEEN EXISTING IN SOME FORM OF PURGATORY and that the whole point of your island is that "YOU REMEMBER, AND THEN LET GO."

This explanation, you recall, was suggested by some fans during the first season, but the creators explicitly denied that it was true, and besides everyone thought the idea was stupid.

Suddenly you realize that the creators were clueless and didn't have any idea where this was going, that for the last episode they just pulled this stuff out of their ass, and that this is the worst plot development in TV history since JR's death turned out to be a dream.


And you're an actor on this show. What the hell . . . ? You have to go before the cameras and pretend that this isn't a complete idiot plot.

The term "idiot plot" is usually credited to the film critic Roger Ebert, but Ebert himself--- who edited a science fiction fanzine back in the day--- surely knew the term was invented by James Blish, who defined it as a "a plot which is kept in motion solely by virtue of the fact that everybody involved is an idiot." (Or maybe just the protagonist is an idiot. Or the writers. Or the protagonist is competent and intelligent right up till the end, when he turns into an idiot so that something dramatic can happen.)

Blish's fellow Futurian Damon Knight came up with the idea of the "second-order idiot plot, in which not merely the principals, but everybody in the whole society has to be a grade-A idiot, or the story couldn't happen."

I don't know how the rest of you feel about idiot plots, but they make me insane. (Okay, not all of them. If it's obvious from the beginning that this is an idiot plot, as for instance Mesa of Lost Women [1953], I don't have a lot invested in the story anyway, so I don't much care.) But when there's something that has some intelligence and gravitas behind it, when the writer has talent or the actors are good or a lot of the scripts display smarts, and then the creator just pisses it all away with some idiot development, I start to foam at the mouth.

But how do you, as a creator, prevent me and other members of your audience from foaming?

Firstly, think about your ending before you even start. A cop letting his family wander around on their own when he knows someone's out to kill them is just dumb on its surface. How about have the cop hide his family, but the bad guy is clever enough to find them anyway? It's sort of predictable, but it's better than what you've got.

What happens when your guys finally find Earth? Instead of the lame mystic crap, how about the Earth people turn out to be super-competent at kicking robot ass, but they're so smug and totalitarian that our heroes can't stand them? Or maybe the Earth people have their own fighting robots, and we all have to worry whether the baddie robots will subvert them?

Gee, I could go on and on. Pity the screenwriters never talked to me.

And as for our castaways on the island-- well, y'know, I can't help you there. The whole freakin' setup is impossible. I could probably come up with a better idea than "they're all dead," but it wouldn't be better by much.

So Rule #1 is think about your ending and make sure it doesn't insult your fans' intelligence. I mean, you're supposed to be creative and all, go and do something creative! Earn your fucking money, is what I'm saying.

Rule #2 is get rid of the mystic stuff, unless of course your whole program is about mysticism, in which case nothing makes sense anyway and it's all okay. Banish from your mind the following ideas: "This is how God wants it." "This is how it's meant to be." "We must leave logic behind and follow our feelings." "It's all about Balance." "We have been in this place before." "That course of action is Forbidden." "We must learn Acceptance."

Rule #3. When all else fails, ask yourself the following question: "What would a real cop/astronaut/whatever do?" I mean, fictional characters are doing unreal stuff all the time, throwing in a little piece of realism might shake up the audience.

So to sum up, my final piece of advice is one of the following.

A. Don't be an idiot.
B. Don't assume your audience are idiots.
C. All of the above.

What is the correct answer?


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Figures From the Past

As most of you probably know, I began my career as an author of historical fiction. Those books are long out of print and, I assumed, long forgotten.

I'm pleased to report that one reader hasn't forgotten. Reader/modeler Dan Thompson has created a miniature of my character Captain Favian Markham, USN, standing on the deck of his captured British frigate Macedonian.

The process of creating the diorama is amply documented on Mr. Thompson's site, along with the creation of other fascinating and detailed models and dioramas. (I particularly liked the diorama of HMTR Thunderchild battling two Martian battle machines.)

As for Captain Markham, I must admit that I sometimes adopt this very pose when viewing the world from my own quarterdeck.

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Brokeback Canal

Via Gio, an ad for French cable channel Canal+, featuring a tale of tragic love on Brokeback Mountain.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010


Via Gardner, it's the trailer for the 1950 version of The Empire Strikes Back!

In 3-Dimension!

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Premature Burial

A few days ago, all Twitter was aglow with the information that Harlan Ellison had died.

Last night, I received email that Normal Spinrad had died during an operation.

As it happens, Harlan is very much alive, and Norman survived his operation perfectly well.

So there seems to be a "prankster" working the science fiction social networks. I put "prankster" in quotes because, speaking only for myself, I think pranks should actually be funny, and if possible witty and imaginative, and these aren't. These are just, I dunno, dumb. If I were an Internet prankster, I could think of scads of pranks that would be a lot more intelligent and funny than these.

So if you hear that some well-known science fiction writer has died, please check with a third party before reposting. Thank you.

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Six Weeks to Under Four Minutes

From Air & Space magazine, a time lapse photograph showing the six weeks' preparation necessary for launching the Discovery cut down to just under four minutes.

[via Bob]

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Via Gio, the winner of the 19th Century Darwin Awards.

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Daring to Ask: Post-Katrina

The Daring to Ask Blog has dared to ask me some very comprehensive questions about my novel, The Rift. The book was published in 1999, but don't let that stop you from enjoying it.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Gaining Altitude

Me and my friend here, Iron Chef Walter, are off to Taos for a week. My appearances are likely to be intermittent for the next seven days or so.
In fact I make not make it back if I'm hanging out with this guy. As you can see, he can really put it away.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Somewhere Clint Eastwood Is Smiling

With the environment under threat, and the so-called "experts" failing to come up with a solution, the President makes a wild call, and a rag-tag band of mavericks steps up to the plate and jury-rigs a solution that saves the day . . .

No, this isn't the movie Armageddon. This is real life. With BP unable to stop its gusher on the floor of the Gulf, Obama has now called in his own team.

I note that two of the team have experience in nuclear weapons. This suggests that an atomic explosion may be employed to seal the leak. (Well, it worked for the Russians. Most of the time.)

If this works, it'll make a dandy movie. I see Bruce Willis as Garvin.


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Your Daily Dose of Paranoia

It's been a week since Wall Street's flash crash, when runamuck automated selling wiped out a tenth of my retirement fund--- and, somewhat less importantly, a trillion dollars of assets worldwide. The stocks have come back, but what I find interesting is that no one's actually found what triggered the manic selling. They seem to have ruled out mistakes by traders, so the whole "fat finger hypothesis" has been ruled out.

We are left with the rather obvious notion that Computers are Stupid. It's not a new idea. In Hardwired, written all the way back in the early 80s, I showed how automated stock trading systems could be stampeded into a stock panic.

Not that all those quants on Wall Street listened to me. They failed to learn the most important lesson of all: that I am smarter than they are.

No, that's not the real lesson. (Well, yes it is.) The real lesson is that they are not as smart as they think they are. (or as I am)

Leaving aside the question of whether you'd have to have a brain made of cottage cheese to now put money into a market that can lose a trillion dollars over a glitch--- and then shrug off whatever caused the glitch in the first place--- we have to ask ourselves if whether the flash crash was what I am pleased to call The Hardwired Scenario.

Which is to say that (as in the novel) the crash wasn't an accident at all.

The market wasn't burned all the way to the ground, so if the Flash Crash was deliberate, that means it was a proof of concept. It was someone proving to themselves, to a client, or to the United States that they had the means to cost our economy trillions of dollars and wipe out the investments of everyone in the U.S., and then some.

Who would do such a thing? The Chinese hackers who created Ghost Net and Shadow Network would do it just for fun. Russian hackers are all over the place, and often coordinate with their security services. Cybercriminals bored with their 419 scams might have decided to make some money shorting S&Ps. Or someone in a big Wall Street bank might have decided to show the government who's really running the country, and what the dangers of pursuing actual regulation might be.

Your guess is as good as mine. And your paranoia might well be better.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Green Leopard and Other Plagues

My new collection, The Green Leopard Plague and Other Stories, is now available! Ask for it wherever fine books are sold!

Contained in the volume are two stories that actually won Nebula Awards, as well as other stories that were nominated for Nebulas, Hugos, and/or Sidewises, but due to some horrid cosmic accident did not actually win. Plus there's an introduction by Charles Stross and afterwards to the stories by my ownself, which contain fascinating insights into my Art, Life, and Character.

You won't want to miss this! Really!

[I also note that Amazon claims to ship in 2-4 weeks, but also mentions they have new copies actually on hand. Online vendors are just full of contradictions these days. ]

Update: You can pay the regular Amazon price for a new copy, or you can pay $215.98 or $339.48 for a used copy. Obviously this book appreciates enormously once it leaves the warehouse! Buy lots of copies, and you could be rich!


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Where the Oil Comes From

Via Ralf, a highly scientific explanation of how the U.S. gets its oil.

Monday, May 10, 2010

In Sizzle Requiescat

She never lost the sizzle. Here's she is from 1965.

RIP, Miss Lena Horne.


Sunday, May 09, 2010

A Really Cool Idea That I Can't Know Anything About

I could use some free publicity about now, so could one of you please load a cooler with a bunch of my books and leave it in Times Square?

Just don't tell me when or if you're going to do it. Or who you are. Or anything.

Thank you.


Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Coffee Bread

Recently my cousin Karla and her mom Alice passed through New Mexico on the way to a bowling tournament in El Paso. I get to see my relatives maybe once every decade, so I was pleased to invite them over for dinner and to show them around Albuquerque.

Unfortunately this was a day of a huge windstorm, cold gusts to sixty knots or so, so the outdoor activities we'd planned--- aerial tram, petroglyph trail--- had to be canceled in favor of things we could do indoors. We hit a couple of museums, had a New Mexican meal, and then I went home and the relatives went to visit the casino the Isleta Indians have so kindly and thoughtfully built just outside the city limits.

It took me an extra hour to get home. Blowing sand had reduced visibility to under fifty feet along a stretch of I-25, and traffic had either stopped or crept along at three miles per hour. There were no accidents in the southbound lanes where I stuttered along, but I saw that in the northbound lanes a semitruck had been completely blown onto its side.

When we had our New Mexican lunch, and I taught Karla how to pronounce "relleno," we discussed the cuisines of the Upper Midwest on which I'd been raised. You'll be pleased to know that not all Minnesota cooking depends entirely on Campbell's Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup.

I feel a great (but in restrospect rather appalled) nostalgia for the great dripping hunks of red meat that passed across the table during my childhood. Nowadays I would recoil in terror from a 24-ounce porterhouse, but when I was ten I could totally pack one of those suckers away, and probably did once a week. Standing rib roasts were a regular fixture of our table, along with pork roasts, makkara (a type of Finnish sausage, rather bland, like bologna), chicken rolled in crushed potato chips, casseroles (the infamous Midwest "hot dish"), pork chops simmering in Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup, and Cornish pasties, brought to the area by miners imported from the played-out tin mines of Cornwall.

There was kalamojakka, a kind of Finnish fish chowder made with allspice and the root vegetable of your choice. I've never met a native Finn who knew what a mojakka was, so apparently the dish has survived only in immigrant kitchens. I never cared for it and always found it too bland for my tastebuds, but it was comfort food for my parents.

I also recall staple enjoyed by my relatives in Makinen Township, something called a "South American," a sort of a stew apparently invented by a couple of the local ladies who had traveled either to Latin America, or to a part of America that may have at some point in its history had Latins in it. It involved ground or cubed beef, onions, tomatoes, endive, green bell peppers, and spices, and was eaten over a bun. It tasted better than you'd think.

But what really got my taste buds tingling was piskiti.

"Piskiti" was how the old Finns pronounced the English word "biscuit." It was a type of coffee bread made necessary by the fact that Finns eat six times a day. (The fact that piskiti is also a South Slavic word meaning "to pee" is not relevant to this discussion.)

"Finns eat six times a day!" I remember the wail of despair from a friend who had married a Finn. It is perhaps more accurate to say that Finns have coffee six times a day.

There's breakfast, which always includes coffee. Then morning coffee. Then lunch, with coffee, followed by afternoon coffee. Coffee always comes with dinner, and then there's evening coffee. Naturally you need something to eat with your coffee, so if you're not chowing down on a whole meal, you need coffee bread.

Piskiti is the sweet bread of choice, heavily laden with cardamon. It's a very flexible bread and you can serve it in loaves, braided loaves, or rolls. My mom made great cinnamon buns with piskiti.

"Do you have a recipe?" Karla asked me. Indeed I do not. I asked my mom, just as Karla always asked her granny (my mom's sister), but we always got the same reply. "Just use any sweet bread recipe and throw in lots of cardamon." Karla and I know perfectly well that not just any bread recipe would do. It wouldn't taste right.

The sad fact is that there probably never was a recipe. My mom and her sisters learned how to make piskiti when they were very young, and never passed it on. I don't think I've tasted it since the last time my mother baked, eight or ten years ago.

I tried searching online for piskiti, but only found a very few pages in languages I couldn't understand--- and in any case, I suspect the word was intended in its South Slav meaning. I was lamenting my failure on another online forum, and Janice Gelb managed to find a recipe online. Sage Walker has volunteered to do the baking. Louy and Patricia have volunteered to assist. I will volunteer to eat.

Seems like a pretty ideal solution, really.

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Angel Mike

Via Patricia, this really astounding virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel.
It's got everything but the Pope!


Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Soviet Cola

Long live the glorious proletarian revolution in soft drink technology!



[Update: Due to the vagaries of Blogger, this essay was originally published as if it were written on April 26. Thanks to Ken, I've learned how to adjust the time stamp, so here it is, as if it were new.]

I just got round to reading an essay/review by novelist/critic James Wood published a month or more ago in The New Yorker. It begins as a reaction to Reality Hunger: a Manifesto by David Shields, and then goes on to review Chang-Rae Lee's The Surrendered both in terms of the Shields book and Wood's own stance as viewed through the lens of the Shields book.

(A discerning reader, merely from a glance at the above paragraph, will conclude that during the course of this article Mr. Lee's book gets totally boned. He will be right.)

The article begins by asking "Does literature progress, like medicine or engineering?", and then goes on to point out, "while anyone painting today exactly like Courbet, or composing music exactly like Brahms, would be accounted a fraud or a forger, much contemporary fiction borrows the codes and conventions—the basic narrative grammar—of Flaubert or Balzac without essential alteration."

(I should like to point out right now that anyone writing today "exactly like" like Flaubert or Balzac would not be published, except perhaps as a curiosity, or a pastiche, or a parody. And that while writers may use Balzac's "basic narrative grammar," contemporary painters very much use the same "basic painterly grammar" as Courbet without painting exactly like him. So we have a problem with Wood's argument right here. But this isn't the meat of it, it's an illustration, so let's press on.)

Wood then zooms back to the Sixties with a recap of theorist Roland Barthes' notions of the "reality effect"--- "realistic fiction, like ideology, tries to palm itself off as the most natural and real of literary modes but is in fact the most artificial and unreal. Barthes is ninety-nine per cent right. His rightness is felt every day by any novelist who sits down to a blank piece of paper or a computer screen and tries, despairingly, to think beyond the familiar grammar of narrative. All this silly machinery of plotting and pacing, this corsetry of chapters and paragraphs, this doxology of dialogue and characterization! Who does not want to explode it, do something truly new, and rouse the implication slumbering in the word “novel”? [Let's just leave aside the dozens of writers I know personally who don't want to explode this machinery at all. Anyway, none of them are people Wood ever heard of.] Avant-garde anti-realists probably err in assuming that realist novelists are just complacently or venally recycling convention; my experience is that many intelligent novelists are painfully aware of their bated means, their limitations and timidities and uncertainties, and look with writhing admiration at writers like Beckett or Saramago or Bernhard or David Foster Wallace, who seem to have discovered new fictional languages."

But fortunately, Wood notes a problem with Barthes' argument: "Convention may be boring, but it is not untrue simply because it is conventional . . . [People's lives] do possess more or less traditional elements of plotting and pacing, of suspense and revelation and epiphany. Probably there are more coincidences in real life than in fiction. To say “I love you” is to say something at millionth hand, but it is not, then, necessarily to lie."

Well yeah. Good that someone finally pointed this out.

Wood gets to the Shields book finally, which apparently features sentences like this: "I love literature, but not because I love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. I can never remember characters’ names, plot developments, lines of dialogue, details of setting. [Brave of him to confess himself such a bad reader.] It’s not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition. I’m drawn to literature instead as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking."

(Ah well, bravo for him. We're all for enlightenment here, though perhaps next time Shields wishes to seek wisdom, he should enter a Zen monastery instead of picking up a novel, and stop criticizing novels on the grounds that they're not Zen monasteries.)

Wood claims that since Shields doesn't give very many examples, doesn't do literary criticism, and doesn't want to offend anyone by explaining what they're doing wrong, the manifesto has a tendency to flail away without grounding itself anywhere in particular--- in other words, that the manifesto demanding reality fails to ground itself in the aforesaid reality. All I get from Wood is the vagueish sort of feeling that Shields prefers reality to artifice, and nonfiction to fiction. (Wood could, of course, be completely wrong about Shields, so it's not necessarily Shields I'm talking about here, but the version of Shields that belongs to Wood.)

In any case, that's all fine, except that, y'know, fiction is what I do, so naturally I have an opinion.

Also, as a writer I am deeply committed to story, not simply because I like stories, but because story is what makes the reader want to turn the pages, and as I writer I'm always hoping to keep my readers turning pages.

Should I ask somebody, "What did you do this morning?", the answer might in theory be a list of random, disconnected events, rather like certain kinds of literary works, or like my memory when I've just got up in the morning. Odds are, though, that the answer is going to involve a story. It may be a boring, repetetive, unoriginal sort of story (personally I will stop listening to any story beginning with the words "I went to the store") but you're pretty much guaranteed to get a story of some kind.

We are hardwired both to create and to consume stories. Fiction does not have to address that particular function in our psyches--- you can make fiction that's about nothing but beautiful writing, or fiction that's so choked with matter that it's impossible to arrange it into anything like a story (see Pynchon), or didactic fiction where the plot is only an excuse for the characters to engage in long rants about white supremacy, the inevitable triumph of Marxist-Leninism, or the virtues of selfishness. You can do these things, though you run the commercial risk of losing that part of the audience that reads only for story.

But it has to be said that, for me at least, story will keep me going when the writing, or the cool stuff, or even the rants that I happen to agree with, otherwise fail.

Wood notes that the lives of actual people can feature plots, revelations, coincidence, and epiphany. True, but it all depends on where you start and end. If your fiction consists of nothing but lists of everyday objects your protagonist finds on the supermarket shelf, there's not a lot of any of those "basic narrative grammars" on display. If you start ten minutes before an accident, take your protagonist through the car crash, and end with her waking in the hospital, then you've got a story.

The point being, you still have to pick and choose what goes in your fiction. Even if you're writing an autobiographical novel (as Wood has done), you still have to sort through the bits and pieces of your life in order to find the gems that are worth writing about. And you then have to put these in some kind of order, in such a way as to sustain narrative tension or at least interest, and before you know it you're in the plot business again, dealing out climaxes and epiphanies like the most seasoned commercial writer.

Or, to put it another way, fiction is not real. It's choice, and the imposition of order, and the impulse to narrative. Fiction is an artifact. So a call for real fiction is like a call for apples to produce peach pits. Any perceived reality in a piece of fiction is strictly a function of the skill of the author, and whether or not she can convince you that what's happening in her narrative is real.

What Shields is really calling for is fiction that produces the illusion of reality better than the predictable stuff that he's bored with. Which is fine. I'm all for that, too.

While what Wood (and Barthes) seem to be calling for is novelty. They're bored with stodge, with the same old stuff over and over again, and they want writers to produce anti-stodge. (At least Wood seems to realize that nobody produces stodge on purpose.)

So what it call comes down to is a plea for us all to Do It Better.

Okay, let's! We can all do better! Let's do that! Let's all produce novelty and excitement and the illusion of something real! Rah!

We can all do that. Right?

I note, by the way, that Wood never answers the question he begins with: Does literature progress?

I assume he doesn't get around to answering that question because the answer isn't very exciting. The answer is No. Fiction evolves, but it doesn't progress. (Evolution and progress are not necessarily the same thing.)

The tools of fiction haven't changed, and we all get access to all of them. Some fade from fashion. (Epic verse, the Homeric simile) Some go into fashion and out again. (Stream of consciousness, long social novels with plots that depend on coincidence) Some tools remain useful no matter what epoch you're working in. (Irony, foreshadowing, raising the stakes)

The tools are all there. We can use them or not. We can use them well or not. We can use them to produce Shields' idea of realism or not. It's all up to us, and of course our talent.

Fiction doesn't progress. But writers can. Get busy.

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Monday, May 03, 2010

On A Cold, White Table

It's Dr. John and Eric Clapton doing a duet on "St. James Infirmary Blues."

I mean, what a fine idea this is!

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Needle to the Neck

War's tragedy doesn't end with the war, nor does trauma end when the precipitating cause goes away. When my father's generation came home from the Second World War, a lot of them brought the war home with them. The traditional cure for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in those days was lots of alcohol, followed by kicking the wife and kids around the house.

Not that this happened to me. My father was singularly untraumatized by his war experience, or he got over it very quickly. But a lot of my peers weren't so lucky. And a lot more of my peers found themselves in Vietnam and came back as human wreckage.

So again we have hundreds of thousands of soldiers facing danger overseas, and a vast increase in PTSD cases that threatens to overwhelm our mental health infrastructure. The Pentagon is alert to the danger--- even if individual officers and NCOs are not--- and have been testing a variety of therapies, including "bioenergy," reiki, "dog therapy," yoga, and meditation.

And now it looks as if they just might have found an answer, something called a "stellate ganglion block," which involves injecting a small amount of local anaesthetic into a complex of nerves located in the neck. The sample so far treated is very small, but the success rate is through the roof.

Since PTSD is caused by a brain so traumatized by repeated jolts of adrenaline that it can't believe it's out of danger, it makes sense to tranquilize that part of the brain that keeps reliving the trauma. It looks as if they might have found the right place.

Let's cross our fingers that this therapy. The social consequence of a war is always increased misery at home, and any misery averted is, well, misery averted.

(Incidentally, has anyone seen Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place? An absolutely brilliant performance as a Pacific vet with PTSD--- got the symptoms exactly right, even if the disease hadn't been described yet.)


The Great Lost Essay

I started an essay on fiction writing on April 26, but never got around to finishing it till today. Blogger went and posted it as if I'd finished it on April 26, which means it's buried amid old postings and you probably won't see it.

Here it is, if you want to jump right to it.