Saturday, April 16, 2016

Book 28: OK so he's pretty good but can he draw a BULLET ANT? Didn't think so.

When I was 19 or so, or maybe 22, I took some art classes at the UW-Milwaukee. To get a bachelors' degree in political science, I needed a certain amount of art credits. So I took a couple of semesters of guitar, and a summer class in drawing.

I liked drawing almost as much as I liked guitar. But I was never very good at it.  I can, if I really, really focus, make a pretty credible picture. Years ago, probably 15 or so, as a present for Sweetie I drew various scenes from New York City: the Status of Liberty, the lions outside the library, the Coca-Cola sign in Times Square, and a hot dog cart.  They turned out pretty good.

But that took me weeks to do, and it was a ton of work, to come up with something that was merely okay.

Drawing is something I've never mastered, but really want to. I still work at it from time to time, and even when I'm just sitting and drawing quick pictures for Mr Bunches I try to work on having a style and making pictures my own. (we draw about 5 alphabets a week, with him writing the letter and telling me what to draw, and then he writes the word. We do animals [A is alligator, etc], foods, vegetables, and sometimes "phonics.")

One thing that holds me back is perspective. If I'm trying to draw something from an angle where you might not see part of it -- an airplane, say, where you wouldn't see the wing on one side -- I tend to draw the wing anyway, because it doesn't look right to me otherwise. So I have this plane that appears to exist in several dimensions at once, and I know I shouldn't do it, but I can't seem to help it.

I was thinking about this when I sat down to read (?) the all-illustrated, wordless book The Arrival today at the library.  We'd been out running errands (picking up a new light switch for the bathroom, and going to the used bookstore) and had then stopped off the local library, where they were going to do a "Crafty Kids" thing at 2:30; they do those about every other month, offering free craft projects for kids.

We got there early, and had about 45 minutes to kill, so while Mr Bunches played on the computer, Mr F and I went around looking through the books for something interesting.  On the end of the "Teen Graphic Novels" shelf I saw The Arrival sitting, and I picked it up to see what it was all about.

Initially, I read the blurb on the back and then put it back on the shelf, ready to move on to the next set and see if there was anything to browse through there, but I didn't, right away, and instead opened the book up to glance through the artwork.

I was really enthralled with how gorgeous the book looked. So I sat down to read it while Mr Bunches played and Mr F looked at the lizard and sat patiently waiting for this to be over (Mr F is not a fan of the library, and spends much of his time there sitting in chairs, rolling his eyes when I suggest books to read, and making me take him to the bubbler for a drink.)

I'm glad I did.

The Arrival tells the story, again, in pictures only, of a man who leaves his wife and daughter to go to a new country.  The story seems to be a refugee story of sorts: as the man leaves and the wife and daughter head back home the city they are in seems overtaken with spiky tentacles looming all over it.

The book combines the sepia-toned early-immigrant feeling with a supernatural flair: buildings are fantastical or frightening, there are all sorts of strange creatures wandering around (apparently some sentient) and other, harder-to-describe stuff.

The man settles into his new life with a companion animal of sorts, and tries out a few jobs before getting set up in a factory, where he talks to a few other people about their background. (One man came from a startling country where giants turned everything angular. It has to be seen to be understood, really, but was spectacular and creepy.)

Overall, it took me about 40 minutes to read it because I ended up going through it twice: once for the story and once to go back and look at the pictures, and examine them in more detail.  It's a book I might decide to buy one day, the kind of book that should exist in hard-copy format because it makes the drawing all the more amazing.

I definitely recommend it.

Friday, April 15, 2016

If you had $47,500 you weren't doing very much with..

... you could build and launch your own satellite.

For now, you can only go to low Earth orbit but someday you might be able to get your picosatellite out to the other planets.

If you want to use your satellite to look at Earth, though, you need to get a license*. If, though, you want to land your object on the moon or another planet, all you need is permission from the government of the country where you're going to launch from. The treaty which requires that you get permission also says you can't fly to the moon and claim it as your own.

*As part of that license you have to agree not to take any high-resolution images of Israel, in case you were wondering about how lobbying affects space exploration.

Book 27: You could almost foresee that the bulk of this would be about my feud with Stephen King

Joyland was the book that gave me a hissy fit about four years ago, when Stephen King announced that he'd written a book for Hard Case Crime, but that he would only publish it in paperback "at first," a move that generated tons of publicity and got King heralded as a guy who was saving writing for writers and reading for readers and so on blah blah blah. Even back four years ago King was saying he'd eventually make it available on e-readers after he'd soaked up enough profits from the lucrative publishers/top authors business model that still prevails today he'd given the readers an 'authentic' experience.

King's decision to publish a book in 'hard copy' only generated a lot of praise and publicity, and also generated a backlash as people began pirating copies of it and giving him 1-star reviews on Amazon without even having read the book. Book piracy has generally been a nonissue for people -- have you even heard before today that people do it? I hadn't-- and not all authors and publishers were concerned about it. That article noted that King's Hard Case Crimes publisher shrugged off pirating, saying you have to rely on the goodwill of readers.  My current all-time favorite author, Nick Harkaway, said technical solutions to stop book piracy were "silly." Harkaway thought pirating actually helped sales, which is an interesting point of view.

King's decision to forego e-book publishing for a while caused what can only be described as the least discriminating readers ever to download copies of a 2006 book also called Joyland, resulting in a windfall for the woman who wrote that other book. Stephen King even mentioned her on Twitter, and she started a blog about how she was spending her Stephen King money. (My book Eclipse came out about the same time as Stephanie Meyers' Eclipse and I got nothing. Pleh.)

Back in 2012 when I ranted about King's decision to only publish in paperback at first, I decided that it was far less about King's desire to let people have the 'authentic' experience of reading a pulpy crime novel the way he felt they should be read, and more about keeping big publishing and big authors together generating big sales for only a relatively few writers. I noted that the medium isn't the message, and that a book should stand on its own as a story regardless of the format it's read in.

But with Joyland, the medium was almost the only message. Not only did many of the stories about the book initially focus on the manner of its publishing, rather than its story or the Hard Case Crime series, but eventually Hard Case published even more 'collectible' editions: it was published in paperback for a year, then a series of limited-edition hardcovers, about 2,250 in all.

This is what I said in 2012, verbatim, about why King was publishing Joyland as a paperback:

What's really going on is some combination of contrived scarcity, added value, and a fight against Amazon and other indie booksellers like Smashwords. 
Contrived scarcity is what Disney and the makers of Westvleteren 12 beer do (although the latter, being monks, deny that's what they're doing.) Disney won't let you buy The Lion King whenever you want; you have to wait until it comes out of the vault. The monks who make "the best beer in the world" carefully limit access to it, although when push comes to shove both open up their doors -- the monks started shipping their beer because they needed money to fix their abbey, which is understandable and they're still doing God's work but they're doing it for a profit. 
 Making your book available only through a small publisher and only in paperbacks guarantees scarcity, which can drive up demand. (Westlveteren sells for over $500 a case on eBay). It guarantees people pre-ordering the book and lines when King goes to the bookstores for signing -- and it guarantees stories about the book for months in advance, free publicity being the best kind, especially if it's authentic free publicity (which is why I'm not naming the book.)

I had no idea, then, that a year later Hard Case would deliberately play into the contrived scarcity of the book.  This, of course, is probably why Hard Case got King to write a book for them in the first place; I'd have never read a Hard Case book if not for it being written by King, but now I'll go read a couple of their other ones, so the  marketing worked.

I'm not against marketing. I'm the guy who suggested putting commercials and ads in books. I'm against marketing presented as authenticity.  It's that kind of fake authenticity that makes every city in America have a cobblestoned minimall somewhere downtown, that makes people still buy vinyl records. The limited-edition copies of Joyland in hardcover are going for up to $250 online. If King's actual desire was to make people feel what it was like for him as a kid reading a pulpy paperback in his bed at night, why issue a $250 limited edition hardcover?

Stephen King's reputation as a writer has somehow managed to survive despite his many flaws. It was a sprawling wreck of a novel with a gross, out-of-place child orgy that gave away any suspense by its unnecessary and overly-complicated switching back and forth of timelines, burying an otherwise decent horror premise under a mess of literary tricks. His writing tends to be repetitious at times and he's often in need of a good editor. He writes, often, like a twelve-year-old; one of his books features a monster the characters call a shit weasel, and the monster is more unnecessarily gross than that name implies.  He's written something like a kajillion novels, but they're an uneven bunch; for every The Stand or The Long Walk there's an Insomnia or Salem's Lot. And for a fun drinking game, try taking a sip every time King mentions a character wearing a 'chambray' shirt. I would like to send him an American Apparel catalog just so he'll have a guy wear something else.

But Stephen King has somehow risen above being Stephen King. His name is synonymous with horror writing in America, and he has also somehow become the de facto writer laureate of our country, despite his many poor writing tendencies.  When King says something is good, people assume it is good. When he says it is bad, people assume it is bad. His reputation and influence seem to bear no actual relationship to his overall level of talent which I would say is on the higher side of average -- he's a B writer with the occasional stretch to A-level. He's like the baseball player that goes on a hot streak every so often but still has a .250 average.

In that sense, King is the perfect messenger for publishing's overall clamor that the medium is what is important: Stephen King the writer has become "Stephen King, Inc." the marketing force, and his decision to write a hard-case crime story made headlines before anyone even knew whether it would be any good. Most of the talk about Joyland has never been about Joyland as a story; it has been about Joyland as a product delivered by Stephen King, Inc., and just as Coke and Pepsi and Lucasfilm retain their credibility despite numerous fails, so does King.

Publishing exists, these days, to keep publishing in business.  That is not really surprising: all businesses exist to keep themselves in business.  What is amusing, if not amazing, is that publishing is attempting to keep itself alive by forcing people to consume its products only in one certain way. Think of another business that has insisted on that. When American carmakers kept insisting on big gas-guzzlers, they were undercut by auto companies that gave people sporty economy cars. Now they make electric vehicles and are pioneering self-driving cars. McDonalds has introduced salads. TV networks license shows to Hulu and the Beatles let Apple put their songs on iTunes.

Eventually, every business must accede to the desires of its public. The music industry continues to fight to keep people from listening to music the way they want to, and is losing money. Publishing keeps pushing Stephen King, Inc. (And "JK Rowling Conglomerated" and "John Grisham LLC") because these are reliable sellers that require little to no effort to market. Remember, not only did Stephen King's Joyland make a huge splash before it was written but people were so eager to buy a King novel that they didn't even bother to make sure they were buying the right Joyland.

I can see why the publishers wouldn't want to lose that. But at this point, it's almost completely not about the stories. I'm a King fan, mostly, and I can name maybe 10 of his books, on a good day. He's published sixty-two books. I doubt most people have read them all; I bet many people have read only 1 or 2, but even those people who don't read King know about him and could probably name 1 or 2 of his books. Stephen King is famous, at this point, for being Stephen King, and the flap over how Joyland was published, and the decision to focus on the manner of its publication, as well as to market the book almost exclusively based on the manner of publication, demonstrates that for many people, and many writers, and many publishers, writing is less than ever about the story.

Which in this case is kind of sad, because in the end, Joyland was actually a pretty good book. It benefitted from having a leaner, streamlined feel. It didn't end up being all bloated with nonsense the way so much of King's stuff is, and should be placed near the top of his books, for the story, rather than for being available in a $250 limited edition.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Book 26: Also American readers can't handle the word a**hole but are okay with "kneebiter."

Year Zero is everything Futuristic Violence and Armada tried to be; those books failed at it, while Year Zero (mostly) succeeds.

Writing humor is hard, and writing scifi humor is harder still, because the moment you put a joke into your scifi book it's going to be compared to Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker books; Year Zero was billed as being similar to, or in the vein of, the Hitchhiker books, and it is, in a sense -- because they are both scifi books with a humorous tone and wacky hijinks.  Beyond that, the books aren't really similar; Adams' humor exists on a level higher than any other book I can think of, with the multiple layers of jokes and asides and weird one-offs. There's nothing even half as clever as 'the most grautuitous use of the word Belgium' (which, as an aside, only exists as a phrase in the book for us because Americans are too prudish to let Adams use the word f**k .)  But not every book has to be the greatest thing ever in the world to be enjoyable.

Year One is sort of oddly enjoyable; it sounds too specific and on-the-nose to be entertaining: the story revolves around aliens getting exposed to human music (specifically the Welcome Back, Kotter theme song) and being overwhelmed by how great our music is. So overwhelmed that they download, for 40 years, trillions upon trillions of copies spreading around the universe, only to realize one day that because of copyright laws the Earth is now owed something like 300 zillion times the entire wealth of the universe.  That sets off a plot that honestly makes very little sense, alternating between proceeding along wholly-expected lines and veering into areas that seem to have no connection to what happened before. The hero is Nick Carter, who shares the name of a Backstreet Boy and the head of his law firm, which case of doubly-mistaken identity causes some aliens to select him as their lawyer to try to negotiate a license for the music, and to do so because a guild of entertainers succeeds in destroying the Earth 'accidentally' to avoid paying up.

Paying too much attention, or maybe too little attention, causes the plot to never quite add up; for example, there's a part at the end where one of the bad guys is insisting on getting the Guild's money back, and unless I'd missed it (I listened on audio) the Guild had never paid money in the story, so that didn't make sense, but it's the kind of story that doesn't really need to make sense.  The details of why the aliens love our music so much and how that shapes them, combined with weird technologies and a sort of haphazard stop-and-go to the plot make the book more fun than I would've expected, and there are parts that are flat-out funny or amazing (the scene where Nick fights a group of photophobes in the dark ends in a way that is hilariously off-putting.)

The book occasionally gets a bit too specific about copyright laws; it's almost like it was written in part to be a primer on copyrights, like an infomercial for law clerks or something, but those parts are few and far between.  That type of thing is to be expected, I guess: Rob Reid, the author, is a venture capitalist who got his start by founding, which then turned into Rhapsody, the first online music streaming site. He founded that back in 2001, which is practically ancient history in Internet years. Shortly before he wrote this book, he gave a TED talk about how much of a sham "Copyright Math" is and argued that fighting music piracy could best be done not by draconian laws but by making it easier and cheaper to get music legally.

(Copyright laws, which I only know a little bit about, are a debatable bit of public legislation. Every country signatory to a treaty from the 19th century is required to protect copyrights for the life of the author plus at least 50 years. In 1998, the US extended this for most works to 75 years after the author's death. This was done, they said, to match European laws and to 'stimulate creativity,' the thinking being that nobody would bother to create something if they couldn't protect it for their entire life plus another lifetime after that.  I think that's open to question. My own position is that copyright should be minimal -- maybe 5 or 10 years-- and that after that, anyone could use something created by someone else but they would have to share profits, providing 75% of the profits to the original creator during the creator's lifetime. That way, anyone could now (for example) use Luke Skywalker in their own books, movies, etc., but 75% of all the money earned would go to... Disney, I guess. So the incentive would be to create your own things, or to create some spinoff that's so wildly popular that you don't mind giving up 75% of the dough.  Imagine, though: my system would mean Harry Potter would be fair game for everyone, which sounds weird to people, probably, but remember that 'Fifty Shades Of Gray' first began as a Twilight-fanfic, with the characters renamed. Everyone knows that's how it came to be, but because she changed a few details of the characters, Fifty Shades was allowed to exist.)

To be honest, I only listened to Year Zero because it was available and the books I really wanted weren't, but it hooked me pretty fast and I enjoyed it. I'd give it a solid three out of five; don't go out of your way to read it but if you like Hitchhiker or other sort of silly scifi you'll probably enjoy this.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Book 25: So really I'm just sort of rambling here but go easy on me I've had about 3 hours sleep in the last 17 days.

This was another Xanth book that it turns out I actually read long ago, although less of this one stuck in my mind, so I must not have read it very much.  When I was a kid, I used to re-read books all the time. My old library card number at the Hartland Public Library was "4002," and in those days books were checked out with a card that they stamped with your library card number.  In some books, there would be a string of 4002 4002 4002 on line after line, books that I loved so much I wanted to read them forever.

I must have, I figure, owned Man From Mundania at one point, because I didn't check the Xanth books out of libraries (or at least I don't recall doing that) and because by the time this one came out I'd have been living in Milwaukee and going to college and I don't recall ever checking a book out of the Milwaukee library or the college library.  So I guess I owned this book and must have lost it or given it away or sold it back when I sold boxes and boxes of books, five or ten years ago or something like that. I must have read it when I was getting to the stage of my life where I didn't have time to read and re-read books, where my reading time got limited by classes and work and parenting and being so tired sometimes at night that I can barely focus on anything, let alone on reading.

That's one reason I like these Xanth books, as well as some of the other lighter stuff I'm reading; especially the past week, I often am so exhausted by 8 or 9 that I'm literally bleary-eyed, and reading heavier, harder-to-understand stuff is almost beyond me. Between work and the boys and my asthma, sometimes it's all I can do to make it to 9 just holding my head up.  It's easier to read stuff that I can just sort of float along on.

Anyway, the thing I really want to talk about with this book is the idea of a character refusing to believe what happens to them, and thinking it's a dream/trick/hallucination etc.   In Man From Mundania, the storyline from Heaven Cent continues, with Princess Ivy using the "Heaven Cent" to try to find the Good Magician; the Cent sends her to Mundania, where she meets Grey Murphy, who likes her and decides to help her try to get back to Xanth even though he thinks she's delusional.

Grey doesn't believe in magic, or Xanth, which is understandable in that they don't exist in his world; he just goes along with Ivy because he likes her and thinks she's pretty. But they make their way back into Xanth, and Grey even then refuses to believe in magic or Xanth. He goes into a giant gourd, finds himself in a new place with a castle and plants that move and even a giant river of blood coming from a chained giant, and a magically appearing statue that is the Night Stallion who runs the world of dreams, and through it all Grey keeps thinking it's special effects or he's imagining it; it's not until about 1/3 of the way through the book, after Grey has met a centaur and goblins and a giant dragon and exploding pies that he starts to actually believe magic is real.

It helps with Grey's disbelief that his own magic is the ability to cancel or nullify other magic, but even then the disbelief began to bother me when it stubbornly stuck around; it went beyond what seemed credible for a character and began to feel like a plot device that had been stretched too thin.

The point of Grey's disbelief, in the story, is that it makes Ivy realize he really does like her, because he doesn't think she's a princess or magical, so Ivy knows Grey doesn't want her just for those things; but that could've been accomplished without making Grey seem quite so stubborn/dumb.

Like the "people forget technology and textbooks are a thing" of post-apocalyptic stories, the "I don't believe this because it's not possible" thing also strikes me as overused and kind of silly. I don't know that I've ever in my life been exposed to something so far outside of my experience or understanding of how things work that I wouldn't believe it; I can't think of anything like that offhand. So I don't know for sure how I'd react if something supernatural or unimaginable happened to me.

Although I have some clues, and those clues are that I'd probably accept it pretty quickly. Remember that time I thought we maybe had a poltergeist in our house because the door was flapping slightly back and forth with nobody in the room? I didn't, when I thought briefly that there was something weird happening, think oh I must be imagining this or that's not possible. I thought oh man this is cool that door is moving for no reason whatsoever.

So I feel like maybe I'd be pretty quick to just say yep this is happening and magic it up, but then I think about Bible stories, where God would appear to Moses as a burning bush or angels talked to shepherds, and I wonder what would happen if that kind of thing actually happened: not some low-level thing like a door moving for no reason, but a big honest-to-God happening.

I'm not so sure I'd believe that, or even talk about it. I think my first thought really would be that I was going insane.  I remember reading A Beautiful Mind and learning that John Nash thought at times that he was a toe on God's foot; he really honestly believed that, among his other delusions.  Back when my mom was first becoming a nurse she told us about a psychology class she had to take, in which one of the people was a case study. The guy thought that two pigeons that sat outside his window frequently were talking about him; also, he believed that one of the pigeons was Napoleon.  Travis Walton still swears he was really abducted.

So if I really began to think something supernatural was happening to me, I suppose I wouldn't say anything at all to anyone, at least until it got scary -- like people who say God told them to kill someone or something -- or until I thought I had proof. But what would proof be if you're really crazy? Or hypnotized? (Note: I don't believe in hypnotism. We had one come to our school once and I am pretty sure that nobody who claimed to be hypnotized really was under some sort of hypnotic suggestion.) The guy who thought the pigeons were talking about him was convinced he had proof: he could see the pigeons talking about him.

I think the main thing to me would be someone else would have to see it independently before I would bring it up around them. Like if I thought a UFO came down in my yard, I doubt I'd say anything until someone else said they saw it, before I ever mentioned it. If someone else said hey did you see that table just lift up and tip over, I'd probably believe it really happened.

Although to be fair, then I might not automatically think ghost notwithstanding my previous instantaneous thought that we had a poltergeist. If I were sitting around and a table suddenly flipped over on its own, and other people saw it, I suppose I'd reach for more natural explanations, first: maybe there'd been a tremor? Or it was a trick rigged by someone? Or ... swamp gas?

The thing is, something that makes us unwilling to mention it to other people because it's so weird isn't going to have a rational explanation.  When I see lights in the sky, I don't flip out because they're doing what lights in the sky are supposed to be doing: traveling steadily in one direction, or just being stars.  But something like this:

doesn't have a rational explanation, and it would be about 1 minute into it that I'd be thinking okay I'm crazy and two minutes into it when someone else experienced it where I'd stop saying it was swamp gas.

I guess where I end up is that it's simply not that believable for characters to spend inordinate amounts of time saying I must be dreaming or That can't be real or whatever. I think Close Encounters of the Third Kind actually did a great job of showing how I imagine I, and most real people, would react: when Richard Dreyfus first sees aliens, he doesn't spend the next 14 years saying I must have been dreaming or it was all some sort of trick.  When something's real it's harder to shake off, and reality can be shown by physical effects: a table flipping over or a sunburn on half your face or, in Man From Mundania's case, by magic actually working.  So when characters continue to insist that it's all a fake or imaginary long after being shown that magic/spaceships/God actually exists, it starts to ring false.  The more I read this year, the more I'm noticing all these little author gimmicks and tropes that really serve more to detract from the book than to enhance it.  I think, like  civilization-has-fallen-apart, the I-can't-believe-it trope really speaks to a dearth of imagination, which is a weird thing to say about a guy as prolific as Piers Anthony; like will-they-or-won't-they on romantic sitcoms, it's a false setup that gets played on too long because the writer can't drum up dramatic tension any other way. I suppose eventually I'll stumble across a book in which a character wakes up in a post-apocalyptic world where they live like medieval times, and he finds someone he's totally attracted to but also somewhat bugged by, and he just won't believe it and will have to repeatedly be convinced it's all for real. That book will sell ten trillion copies because apparently that's what people want in a story.

PS I had to stop watching that Close Encounters clip because that scene really freaks me out.