Sunday, 27 December 2015

Progress Report on Writing Goals, 2015

When I first moved back to the Bay Area, two years ago now, I wrote a post considering both the year just gone and the year to come. I was coming off a pretty good year in a lot of ways - mainly at work, with a promotion and a raise and the move here, but also my personal best for the half-marathon and my first sale of a story to an SFF market. As I said at the time, the year just gone had included a number of events that wouldn't make sense to expect every year - I gave 2014 permission to not be quite as great as 2013.

Fast forward to December 2015. A lot of things have stayed the same - I live in the same place, I do the same job (mostly) and I haven't sold anything else. In part this last one is because I'm starting to run out of short story markets to submit to, and I'm running out of short stories to submit. The last time I finished a short story and was happy with it was 2010, and I'm progressively less happy with the ones I still have on deck. I've been considering jettisoning the ones I do have (ie, by selling them on Amazon or iBooks), in the hopes that it forces me to think of new short story ideas. But there just aren't that many ideas coming down the pike, so I'm hesitant to pull that particular trigger...

But it hasn't all been doom and gloom with the writing. I finished my first (short) novel since 2011, and continued studying screenwriting, which produced three new treatments/outlines (to go with the four I wrote in 2014). I also produced my first full screenplay, in collaboration with a friend, and I can't deny that I've got the bug for it now.

Not only that, but this year's experience writing a novel (and revising/editing it) has given me the confidence to continue targeting longer-form fiction. I used to look at novel-writing as a thing you toiled at for ages, like chipping away at a marble block for years until you'd revealed the angel within, but now I'm starting to think that there's a lot to be said for knocking out a novel more quickly - or at least, getting the first draft done in three months.

At the beginning of the year, I wrote a post outlining the rather ambitious writing goals I'd set for myself, and I think that what helped was breaking each one down into its component parts and setting deadlines for when those parts needed to be accomplished. That, and working on stuff consistently - I suspect I've had fewer streaks of inactivity this year than in previous years, in part because breaking the goals down (by quarter, month and week) meant there was less to do each day and therefore less of a psychological barrier to starting.

So what does the coming year hold? More of the same, to a certain extent - another novel, another screenplay, more movie treatments and more blogging. I'm forgoing the comics scripting for the time being, as it doesn't seem like a big priority and I don't know any artists to work with.

On a deeper level, I'm starting to think that it's time to get myself to where movies are being made, and potentially even see how I can get into the movie business, in any capacity. This another area where I need to credit the Nerdist Podcast, as Chris Hardwick's talks with a number of producers (most recently Brian Grazer and Kathleen Kennedy) have given me the idea that their job could be an interesting perspective on getting into movies.

So as I say every year, here's hoping the year to come brings some improvements and some forward progress - even if it's only greater confidence with the novel and screenplay forms!

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Why the X-Men Are the Worst There Is at What They Do

Apropos of nothing, my thought of the week has been what shitty superheroes the X-Men are.

To a certain extent all superheroes aren't particularly good at what they do - on the contrary, they seem to be actively detrimental to their communities, because they attract supervillains and cause extensive property damage. Superman and Batman got their start beating up corrupt corporate magnates and street criminals, respectively, but the creators eventually brought in bad guys like Lex Luthor or the Joker, which made for more colorful stories but must have lowered property values and consumer confidence in Metropolis and Gothem.

But the difference between Superman and the X-Men is that Superman doesn't really have a stated aim - he just stands up for truth, justice and the American way. The X-Men, by contrast, have made it their mission to be accepted by the world around them, which hates and fears their genetic mutations. And judging by that standard Professor Xavier's dream has to be counted a failure.

For the same reason that comics creators raised the stakes for Batman by pitting him against the likes of the Joker or the Penguin, Stan Lee and Chris Claremont and all the other X-Men writers would periodically make the anti-mutant climate in their stories more intense. So you could argue that the public's perception of mutants has grown worse over the past fifty-odd years, rather than better.

Of course, that might partly be the fault of the writers, who've made the good guys (to say nothing of the bad guys) look ever scarier as time went on. Nightcrawler's a lovable blue imp in comparison to somebody like Cable or Bishop, who are all eye-scars, tattoos and guns.

(Incidentally, Cable and Bishop both also support my hypothesis, in that they're both from dystopian futures.)

The other worrying implication of the X-Men's setting is, how do other superheroes feel about them? We're led to believe that the authorities and the general public don't trust mutants, so it stands to reason that some beloved mainstream superheroes must be rabid mutant-haters. I seem to recall stories where the likes of Spiderman or the Avengers expressed some misgivings about mutants, so if you're an X-Men reader who also reads other Marvel books, it's worrying to think that you're rooting for somebody who prejudges your favorite superheroes just based on being mutants.

One wonders, therefore, if that's why the X-Men took so long to gain any popularity. Something that gets forgotten these days is that the original run by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee wasn't very successful, and the book was effectively cancelled after a few years, with new issues featuring nothing but reprints. It wasn't until Chris Claremont took over and turned it into a long-running soap opera that the X-Men became one of the biggest-selling books of the 80s and 90s.

I'd further argue that the best-loved X-Men stories are evenly split between those dealing with the characters' central idea (like Days of Future Past) and those that have nothing to do with the whole anti-mutant prejudice storyline (like the Dark Phoenix Saga). Certainly Claremont introduced a lot of ideas into the X-Universe during his years at the helm that had nothing to do with prejudice, like the Shiar Empire, the Brood and the Phalanx, Arcade and Longshot.

A quick riffle through one or two old comics just now also turns up the possibility that some of the outlier books, like X-Factor, were more interested in tackling the prejudice storylines than the main book - certainly the stories that stand out for me from that time are quite far from the original intent of the characters.

Jokes about racist or ineffectual superheroes aside, this kind of escalation is what you get when a character lasts this long. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo and his companions reach an endpoint by saving the world (albeit after a thousand pages), but they weren't expected to continue having adventures month in and month out for the better part of a century.

We insist on these characters - whether they be Superman, Batman or the X-Men - continuing forever, because we want to recreate the sense of wonder we had when we first encountered them. But unfortunately, characters aren't really meant to do that - so you either get diminishing returns (like with the James Bond series or Star Trek) or you get ever-increasing levels of violence and tension (as in superhero comics). There's the odd exception, but the fact remains that it's pretty much all more of the same every issue or story arc.

I sometimes think the best thing for characters like the X-Men is to get a definitive win, like they do in the movies, and then go on hiatus for a while, until someone can find great new stories to tell with them. Marvel/Disney would never agree to it - there's too much merchandising riding on it, I guess - but it might make them special again.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Editing Your Novel Doesn't Have to Be a Nightmare Anymore

Revising a novel has always been my bete noire. The line-editing (ie, the thing everybody thinks of when they hear "revising") comes naturally to me, but actually turning a long story into something publishable has escaped me somehow.

I even joined an online writers' workshop to try and get beta-readers, but all it ended up doing was getting me a bunch of critiques that, while probably not inaccurate, still sent me dangerously close to giving up on writing altogether. And the novels I submitted there are still unpublishable.

The situation wasn't helped last year, either, when I wrote a large chunk of a second draft of something, only to hit a complete block in where to take the story next. I never recovered from that, and the story remains "on vacation", as I like to call my trunk novels (I think that's one of the tips I picked up from the writer's workshop).

So when I set the goal at the beginning of the year to write and revise a new 90,000-word novel, I found myself with a novel that I was actually dreading tackling once I'd finished the first draft (also, I'm nowhere near 90,000 words). The idea, following on from Stephen King's On Writing, was to toss the novel aside for six weeks and then start on it again.

In the event, I left it for five months instead - I justified it because I was actually thinking of all the changes I'd have to make during that initial six-week rest period, which essentially meant I hadn't given myself a break from it after all.

Between the end of July and the beginning of November I ended up having enough other projects that I eventually did put it out of my mind more or less completely. So about November, when I was looking at my list of goals and the rapidly approaching end of the year, I found a couple of resources that have turned out to be quite helpful in attacking the revision process:

The first was this post from Holly Lisle, which persuaded me that the process could be made easier. From the same Google search, I also found a post from Ann Lyle, which boils it down to a 10-step process. This is the one I've been following rather closely, because I'm a sucker for breaking goals down into discrete tasks.

What their advice boils down to is, give it a read-through to catch anything that pulls you out of the story, get a handle on all the characters and concepts and place names you introduce, and fix all of that stuff before tackling the line edits. It's too easy, I've found, to get started on line edits and then either realize that something seriously doesn't make sense, or (the worse option) you make a change that actually screws up the entire story.

So far the process has gone pretty well, and pretty quickly. I can clear five or ten pages a night (I could do more if I weren't also working on a script and a movie treatment), and the process is actually quite painless - if I see something that doesn't make sense or that I feel doesn't pay off, I make a note of it on the manuscript and in a special notebook, and then move on. The feeling of not needing to solve everything at once is pretty liberating.

Now, I'm still at Anne Lyle's Step 3, so there's the possibility that this whole process could still crash and burn. But at least for now, I feel like I'm back on track, and so I'm even starting to think about submitting the novel at some point next year. Probably in novella form, because it's still quite short (DAW and Angry Robot, I've found, require lengths of at least 80,000 or 90,000, respectively).

The upshot of this post, then, is this: if you're like me, and you hate revising, check out those two resources I've linked to above. If nothing else, they should give you a framework in which to attack the process.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

In Defense of Critics

It occurs to me that I haven't based a blog post on something I heard on the Nerdist recently, so if that's your thing, then you're in for a treat. To wit:

I was listening to Chris Hardwick and Neko Case this week, and the subject at some point turned to the merits (or lack thereof) of entertainment critics. It's kind of axiomatic that creators don't like critics, as a number of singers, to pull an example at random, have written songs excoriating some music journalist.

And while I understand being annoyed when someone shits on what you do, whether on social media or in print, I do think that critics occupy a more nuanced place than what Hardwick implies, ie people who couldn't hack it in the creative business and so are working out their frustrations by tearing down other people's work. I'm sure someone like that exists - but I doubt they're most of the critics out there, or the best-regarded.

Fantasy author Daniel Abraham once said (I think it was him, but can't find the blog post where he said it) that the two are different skills - a good author doesn't necessarily make a good critic, or vice versa. The thought that they might be the same thing probably comes from the confusion between criticism and reviewing - a review is to say whether something's worth consuming (reading, watching, eating, etc) whereas criticism is to say whether something's done well.

British film critic Mark Kermode had something along these lines in one of his books, where he was talking about the Sex and the City films. He can say it's shit all he wants, but that's not going to stop people from watching it - but he's not here to tell us it's shit, he's here to tell us why it's shit, from a very formal point of view (this is all an enormous paraphrase, by the way).

So I find the idea that any criticism stems from jealousy of someone who was successful in creating a movie or book to be wide of the mark. There are a number of reasons why someone would review your novel or album badly - some are unfair, granted, like they're prejudiced against your genre or were simply having a bad day and now associate the work with that (this, incidentally, is why I don't like Reservoir Dogs).

Or there are other completely spurious reasons to hate a work: I remember a reviewer of Paul Theroux's 2006 travel book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, seemed primarily to take issue with the fact that Theroux isn't Norman Lewis. The fact is indisputable, but it seems somewhat beside the point - you read Theroux for Theroux, not for retreads of Norman Lewis (or Bill Bryson, or Jan Morris, or whoever). Review the book on its own merits, rather than on how it doesn't happen to have been written by your favorite author.

But other reasons are completely fair - you might have phoned in the work, or put a lot of effort into something that simply doesn't connect with anybody, or your reach might have exceeded your grasp and you failed to convey certain things in your work. The fact that nobody sets out to write a shitty novel or make a shitty movie doesn't mean that no novels or movies are shitty, or that we should give everything a pass just because it got made.

This is why reviewers and critics are important. The reviewer tells you whether a movie's worth seeing, and the critic tells you whether it has anything worth studying - these are very different skills from actually writing or directing or acting in a movie. The fact that a good writer or actor or musician should be able to pick out what works and what doesn't from another book or movie or song also doesn't mean they should be the ones doing the reviewing or critiquing (although I know some do, and do it well).

It's one reason why I've avoided book reviews on this blog: while I generally know and can pick out what doesn't work for me about a story, I accept that it's not really in my skillset. My calling is to tell stories, not necessarily to tell others about them - but I do believe that it's a calling for some people, and if they do it well, then more power to them.

Of course, I may be biased because I haven't had the pleasure of being savaged in a review. Check back in with me when I've started being reviewed for my own books or movies, and we'll see what I say then...

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Rambo, Thirty Years Later: Well, That Could Have Been Worse

I was in kind of a silly mood last night, so I watched Rambo: First Blood Part 2 on Netflix, and it reminded me of why 1980s action flicks were so great.

Rambo's such a big part of 80s culture that it's easy (at least for me) to overlook the fact that Sylvester Stallone made only three of those films in that decade, and just two of those are actually what we think of when we hear the name "Rambo" - the first one takes place entirely in the US, and is remarkably bloodless, apart from some accidental collateral damage. It's also surprisingly nuanced and heartfelt, in that it's all about someone coming back from war to find that he doesn't fit in at home anymore. I won't say I was disappointed, exactly, when I saw it a few years ago, but it's fair to say that wasn't the film I'd been expecting.

Rambo 2, on the other hand, must have filled the pockets of fake-blood merchants quite considerably. It's pretty unapologetic about what it is and what it wants to accomplish, and does it with a reasonable economy - no pissing about, he's in Asia within ten minutes, and shooting people full of arrows by about the halfway mark. It's got double-crosses (dishonest politicians, of course), doomed love (in the shape of his Vietnamese contact who gets blown away somewhere in Act 2) and a nicely histrionic but still straight-forward approach to action scenes.

One of the things I lamented most about action movies in the 90s is that they all became a bit too self-aware, which led on the one hand to certain (mostly French) directors trying to make them operatic, and on the other to the effects-heavy approach pioneered by the Matrix.

(You could argue that action movies had a similar evolution to rock music: it got crazy and filled with excess in the 70s - ie Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones - which turned into a parody of itself in the 80s - Styx, Whitesnake - and then was all swept away by grunge in the 90s.)

Rambo also has some pretty questionable politics at its core, which another hallmark of 80s action flicks. When Rambo's being told about his new mission, his only question is, "Will we get to win this time?" I think I get where they were trying to go with that (veterans' sense of betrayal and shame), but it just landed too close to the "stab in the back" accusation that the Nazis used to explain why Germany lost WWI.

Godwin's Law aside, its portrayal of the Vietnamese is not particularly flattering, and when the Russians arrive (in the form of perennial baddie Steven Berkoff), you get the sense that it's some big wish-fulfillment for those asking why we couldn't just go blow up the Russkies and have done with it.

At the same time, though, the slightly less intellectual parts of my brain were just reveling in the sheer ridiculousness of it all. I mean, you have to have a cold, dead heart indeed to not appreciate Rambo shooting a bazooka through the broken windshield of his helicopter to destroy his nemesis, or blowing up the Vietnamese officer with a grenade arrow.

I guess the silliness becomes a little more apparent when we're 30 years off from those days - all I knew about Rambo in the 80s and 90s was that my parents wouldn't have approved of me watching those movies, and that Green Lantern Guy Gardner's love of the character was shown as the worst excesses of Reagan-era right-wing politics.

You could argue that the current crop of Republican candidates shows that things have changed for the worst, but it's hard to imagine a summer tentpole action flick taking on geopolitics so obviously. Although a lot of folks loved American Sniper, which by all accounts was even more reprehensible, so maybe that kind of filmmaking has moved up into the prestige category?

What I'm trying to get at, in any case, is that as awful as the movie and story were, we're far enough away from those days that we can appreciated just how dumb it all is, and revel in that stupidity. In his travel book about the Pacific, Paul Theroux holds up Rambo as the thing that's ruining traditional cultures in the region, but I find it hard to see what all the fuss is about now. I mean, compared to the coups that the CIA was instigating throughout the global south, Rambo seems quite straightforward and broadly harmless.

I don't mean that to negate my political/philosophical objections from a few paragraphs ago - but it's not exactly Birth of a Nation, is it? First Blood Part 2 is violent, brutish and stupid, but unlike, say, Zero Dark Thirty, it doesn't try to glorify the shitty things done in our name - it just presents a simple, black-and-white view of the world. It is entirely itself, without apologies or equivocation, and that's why it works.

Hopefully Rambo III will hold up just as well, though I'm not getting my hopes up.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Good and Bad of Comics in the 80s and 90s

As my search through my old boxes of comics continues, I came across a few more oddities and other stuff yesterday. The one I was really happy to find was my set of the Giffen-Bierbaums Legion of Superheroes from 1989, which carried the "Five Years Later" story arc - somehow this turned out to be my first initiation into the Legion, and so all subsequent (and even previous) versions have kind of paled.

To make a long story short, the idea behind it was that the Legion, a super-team in the 30th century, is now disbanded and scattered throughout the galaxy - some members are dead, others have retired and one or two are still trying to do good in limited ways. Aesthetically, Keith Giffen's art in those first few issues is the grimy middle-style he adopted at the turn of that decade, and is redolent of the "used future" aesthetic that George Lucas employed for Star Wars.

Giffen had his weird visual tics at that time, including the seriously over-used shot of someone in profile, looking up, but beyond that he used some really neat techniques, including framing a single view with the traditional nine-panel grid to act as both establishing shot and give the sense of movement.

I'm not sure who influenced whom, but his technique in those books is very similar to that of Charlie Adlard in The Walking Dead, which is one reason why I've also always loved Adlard's work.

Story-wise, I don't know if I can say that those Legion books influenced me that much - certainly not in a very overt way - but I've always loved that kind of long-form story where characters are separated and fighting their way back to safety, or to another objective. Another comic that did this well was Chris Claremont's late-80s work on the X-Men, when they weren't anchored at the school anymore.

It's a type of story I've always wanted to tackle, but haven't gotten to - though I hope to do it someday!

On a less positive note, I also found a Superman annual from a couple of years later. This was from 1991, during DC's Armageddon 2001 crossover event (there was a time, weirdly, when the crossover events by both of the Big Two were limited to annuals rather than the regular monthlies). Now that we're nearly 15 years past that iconic year, it seems quite quaint, but the story was that in 10 years a superhero would go mad and take over the world.

This caused one man to undergo an experiment to turn himself into the time-traveling Waverider, and use his powers to imagine possible futures for each superhero. It was a pretty clumsy way of doing it, and probably didn't need to be done as a company-wide crossover (DC did it right a few years later, where each book got the Elseworlds treatment, showing alternate takes on the characters).

This particular issue was Waverider's second look at Superman's future, and ended up being mostly - even nauseatingly - positive. In short, Superman ends up becoming president of the US, and absolutely nothing goes wrong. There are hints here and there of trouble, but are either brushed aside or never developed:

Lex Luthor (who at the time was masquerading as his own son; long story) gets arrested within two pages of Superman's election. Rogue Green Lantern Guy Gardner takes issue with Supes' agenda, and tries to fight him, only for Superman to take his ring and get him drummed out of the Green Lantern Corps. When Superman's offered the ring, which would make him even more powerful, he hands it back without much soul-searching. And then, when Superman's looking at all the work he's accomplished, some of it by intimidating his fellow world leaders, and is worrying about how to ensure his legacy, the story ends.

It's probably 20 years since I read that story, and with each page I kept waiting for something to go wrong: assassins shooting kryptonite bullets, someone killing Lois Lane, Superman himself taking an expansionist line and intimidating the rest of the world into kow-towing to American interests. But at each point I was balked.

I actually quite like Superman stories, because when they're told well, they're a good look at how that specific character interacts with the world around him, mindful of how easily he could destroy everything. This wasn't a well-told story, though. After he was rebooted by John Byrne in 1986, after the Crisis on Infinite Earths, Superman fell into the hands of a bunch of not particularly distinguished writers (and artists), who completely took away all of the charm of the character.

It made me, in fact, want to revisit Superman: Red Son, Mark Millar's Elseworlds story looking at what might have happened if Kal-El had landed in 1930s Soviet Russia instead of Kansas. Millar had a lot more pages to work with there, and he made them count: instead of positing a completely nightmarish vision, which we might have gotten in the 1980s (or from Frank Miller), he adds the conflict of two men both trying to do good but from different viewpoints, while also examining how Superman's powers worked with the built-in authoritarianism of the USSR.

The "Five Years Later" Legion and the post-Crisis Superman make for an interesting contrast, as the former represented a spirit of risk-taking and innovation that DC hasn't recaptured. Other examples were the "Bwah-ha-ha" era Justice League (which Giffen also co-wrote), as well as books like Sandman, Hellblazer, Grant Morrison's Animal Man and Mike Grell's Green Arrow. Those first three were among the books that formed the basis of Vertigo, while Green Arrow, along with Dennis O'Neil's run on the Question, took a more mature-readers approach to the less fantastical heroes - and Grell's work now is a big influence on the Arrow TV series that I love so much.

That era's Superman, on the other hand, kind of stands for a lot of what DC did later - using gimmicks to try and spice up badly handled characters, which led to an arms race of terrible stories that were intended to top one another and only resulted in making things more confusing. It's no wonder they keep having to retcon everything.

The poor old Legion has also suffered this fate, since it was rebooted after the Zero Hour crossover. But it also served another function for me: whenever a property is rebooted or retconned into something unrecognizable (and shit), I can remember that the old stories are still there, even if they aren't canon anymore.

Or as Alan Moore said in "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?", his farewell to the Silver Age:

This is an imaginary story... Aren't they all?

Saturday, 7 November 2015

How Ads in Comics Have and Haven't Changed

Since I started watching the CW's superhero shows, Arrow and the Flash, I've not only started buying new comics, but have also revisited some of the older books I picked up when I was in high school or college. And in doing so I've rediscovered one of the finest pleasures of reading old comics: the ads.

I feel like it's a cliche that old comics were full of stuff like Mike Marvel and Charles Atlas ads for bodybuilding (so much so that Grant Morrison based his Flex Mentallo charactor on them), along with the small ads for useless crap you could send away for, like X-ray glasses or magic tricks. But if it's a (slightly broader) cliche to note that it was a different world, it's also interesting to see how long some of that stuff lasted. For example, the picture below is from a comic that came out in 1992:

Elongated Man Europe '92 #1

That Atlas Body ad in the top right appeared in comics going back to the 60s, but you feel like you can almost trace Charles Atlas's shifting fortunes by the form the ads took. From the full page ads promising books to teach you sex appeal, the ads went smaller and the address would change. By the 90s, the address is a PO box in Madison Square Station, which suggests rather straitened circumstances.

It's not a million miles off from this page, grabbed from Justice League of America #46:

JLA (vol. 1) #46 (copyright DC)

The model ad at the top is charmingly of its time - I guess if you were a boy your options were sports or models, or visiting crappy amusement parks in New Jersey. What's striking is how wordy it all is: the word balloons nearly crowd out the art because the kids are so busy relating how great the models are. And turning to the one at the bottom, I love how $0.85 must have seemed a princely sum to kids in 1966 (who were, let's remember, paying $0.12 for this issue). These days a trip to Six Flags sets you back at least $33. And you can't see it very well, but I've always been intrigued by what kind of ride the Caterpillar must have been (bottom left).

Another thing you'd never see now is this:

JLA (vol.1) #138

This one's from 1977, which was almost as fertile a year (judging by this issue) for neat ads. There was another one for Slim Jims that made prominent reference to werewolves, because if I recall correctly horror was big in comics at the time. But I like this one because it's kind of the last gasp of comics as a thing for all kids, rather than just the nerdy ones. What could be more all-American than BB guns?

I could go on. For this blog I actually lined up six comic books and took a picture of what I thought was a nicely representative ad, though admittedly the later ones are a little less interesting visually - in The Authority #11, from March 2000, ads were all full-pagers for video games or apparel. One from JLA #1, which came out in 1997, is hawking a video box set of Michael Jordan's greatest moments.

Nowadays, unfortunately, I don't know what ads are being published, because I only buy trade paperbacks, and I suspect my local shop wouldn't like me taking photos of their wares on my iPhone without buying them. I can only presume the ads aren't as charming as these old ones, though - even in that Elongated Man one, looking at that array of notices and ads told you that there was this network of fans and mail-order stores nationwide.

This is, of course, one of the reasons I love old comics, and old stuff in general. I've always been fascinated with what the world was like before I was born, and it's poignant seeing that some of those aspects survived into my own times, even though I didn't notice then. It'd be interesting to find out what happened to all those old advertisers, though...

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Ladies in Blockbusters

Funny how when you take your (work) laptop on vacation, you imagine yourself engaging in all sorts of productivity, but then it mysteriously never materializes. Before I left for London I thought I'd do some writing, do some blogging, etc etc, but no, I should have been a tad more realistic.

The upshot, then, is that I've got a bunch of stuff to go over, which I'll do in a number of posts. It's all been simmering in my brain for about a month now, so hopefully it'll all make sense.

As you can maybe tell from the title, I've been thinking about women in summer tentpole action movies. This is because I used my flight time wisely and watched a number of summer tentpole action movies that I'd missed when they were in theaters. On the flight to London I caught Terminator: Genisys, and on the flight back I caught Jurassic World, Ant Man and part of Furious 7. I also watched Inside Out, though maybe that's a little less relevant?

Anyway, the point is, some of the movies tried to have good roles for women (but failed), some didn't try and some acknowledged that they didn't but faced up to it. SPOILERS, btw.

The one that tried but failed was Terminator, funnily enough. You'd expect, after T2 and this installment's return to basics (ie, Sarah Conner), that it'd be full of badass ladies blowing shit up - especially when we learn that the timeline's been messed up even further and now Sarah's the one saving Kyle Reese and telling him "Come with me if you want to live".

Part of that is because they cast Emilia Clarke as Sarah Conner. Emilia Clarke is a fine actress, but I don't think she sells the "hard-as-nails lady" character as well as Linda Hamilton did - and it didn't help that the filmmakers further undermined her turn as that character by having her show up all cute and delicate and small in the mugshots when she, Reese and Arnie are arrested by the SFPD. There were probably producers' notes insisting on stuff like that, and on nude scenes for her and Jai Courtney (Reese), but it's a shame that they ruined that part of the character for me, as otherwise I thought the film was pretty good - a fitting follow-up to T2, even.

The one that didn't bother trying was Jurassic World. Another fine movie (as these things go, I suppose. I mean, I'm not reviewing My Dinner with Andre here), and they didn't undermine any of the character archetypes: Chris Pratt plays the two-fisted hero, Bryce Dallas Howard plays the emotionless woman who learns how to love, etc, but they also don't deviate from these archetypes at any point. It might as well have been an action movie from the 80s. In fact, amid enjoying all the dinosaur-based carnage, I kept imagining what the movie would have been like if they'd switched the two characters around: had the badass dino-wrangler be played by a woman (say, Gina Carano) and the spineless administrator played by a man (Thomas Lennon). That would have been pretty clever, right?

Ant Man also didn't really make much of its female roles, but at least had the good grace to look a little embarrassed about it (oddly, like Jurassic World it also had Judy Greer playing The Only Other Female of Note). I suppose I get that the original character's called Ant Man, rather than Ant Woman, and the American film industry in the 21st century still relies on straight white men to carry films, but there was actually not much good reason for why they had to put Paul Rudd in the costume, rather than Evangeline Lilly. At least she gets her own shrinking armor at the end.

Oddly enough, possibly the only one of these action flicks that came close was Furious 7, because of Michelle Rodriguez's badass character, and the fact that the hacker being rescued by Vin Diesel et al turns out to be a woman. Although I didn't get to see if it passed the Bechdel test, because my flight was coming to an end.

The point is, it's a shame that we're stuck with these kinda regressive gender depictions in films, and even more of a shame that we seem to be going backwards. I mean, Linda Hamilton was blowing shit up and looking tough back in 1991 - it's hard to imagine her taking selfies, as Emilia Clarke was doing.

For shame, Hollywood! Get your act together.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Back in London

After what felt like an eternity of waiting, my vacation for the year has finally rolled around and I'm back in London for a couple of weeks. It's been a tough one to wait for, since I booked the trip back in March (!) and hadn't actually left the US since September of last year (when I went to Singapore). That officially makes this the longest stretch I've spent in any one country since I went back to the US for graduate school eleven years ago.

Since arriving I've made the most of my time here: traveled on the Heathrow Express, visited the British Museum, bought a couple of books (including one at the brand-spanking new Foyle's) and watched Match of the Day. I haven't seen any friends yet, but that cycle of hanging out with people begins today, and continues pretty much unabated until I leave. 

As far as what I still want/need to do while I'm here, well, I've promised my sister a visit to one of the bars in the Shard, and there's a bunch more books I need to pick up, particularly at Big Waterstones on Piccadilly, which remains my favorite bookstore ever. I've also penciled in a visit to the BSFA's monthly meeting near Old Street, so I can hobnob with more SFF writers (something I've been sorely missing since I moved back to California).

And then I get a week totally offline in Italy, where I'm going for a cousin's wedding. So I might not be blogging as much as I'd like, but hopefully I'll be able to come up with the odd bon mot to keep folks entertained...

Sunday, 13 September 2015

A Catch-up on Writing Goals

At the beginning of the year I listed a number of writing related goals that I've set for myself, with the idea that if I set a lot, I'd be more motivated to accomplish them. I'm happy to say that I'm mostly right, but it's also worth noting how naive some of that was.

I never got around to properly revising any of my movie treatments from last year, for instance. But I have finished a first draft of a full screenplay with a friend back in London, so I'm counting that goal as broadly done. And I've been thinking of ways to expand these old outlines (or, um, finish the one that I didn't complete last year...), so that I can actually write them into full screenplays.

As far as the new screenplay treatments, I'm well on track with those. I set myself the goal of doing three, and as of mid-September I've done two. They aren't necessarily the ones I planned on at the start of the year, or as long as I was thinking, but they're done, so this goal is pretty comprehensively on the road to completion.

The comic's been a bit more difficult, in part because I haven't really looked at how to write comics in almost 15 years. It also doesn't help that I got through a version of the first issue and then re-imagined the entire story, so I'm effectively a month behind with this one. On the plus side, because it's the same story as one of last year's movie treatments, it means I'm moving ahead with revisions on that one, too. #winwin

And then there's the 90,000 word novel I planned to write. I blogged about my progress on it a couple of times, but never did part 3 of my progress reports - but suffice to say, after a blinding start in April, where I was routinely knocking out over 1,000 words in a night, progress came a lot slower for the next couple of months, and although the story ended, I didn't come anywhere near 90,000.

This isn't necessarily an arbitrary goal, by the way, as DAW requires books to be at least 80,000 words, and Angry Robot's guidelines specify 90k. This means I'm left with two choices - either expand it by at least 35,000 words, or pare it down and turn it into a novella. I'm leaning toward the former, as I don't know if a market for fantasy novellas even exists, but probably my main focus for right now should be just to get on with revising. And the first step of that would be putting the 136 pages I printed out the other week in order - always remember to put page numbers on stuff!

The final goal I listed was submitting stories 20 times, for which I've reached the halfway point as of last night. As I mentioned at the start of the year, this required some revisions and rewrites, as I had two stories ready for submission; I've sent a couple of others, but the revising and rewriting remains beyond me, to some extent. This is probably an action point for me, of course - learn to revise properly so that I can actually get a few more stories out the door...

I mention all of this to illustrate a point made by Tim Ferriss in the Four-Hour Work Week (which he was citing from elsewhere), that tasks expand to fit the time allotted. For me the best example was the novel. In previous years, with previous novels, I wouldn't exactly set myself a deadline, I'd just write -sometimes I'd get to the end, and sometimes I wouldn't.

This time, following suggestions by Stephen King in his book On Writing, I set myself the goal of finishing the first draft in 3 months, and I'd say it helped. I let myself off the hook from all other writing during those three months (except for the blog, of course!), and just got on with it. Sticking to 1,000 words a day may have been a bit too ambitious for someone working 9-5, but on the other hand, my problem ended being too concise, rather than not having enough time...

The other thing that benefits from all these goals I set is consistency: because I had a million things I wanted to do this year, it meant I pretty much have to do something every day. Sometimes it takes hours, and sometimes it's just 15 minutes, but I'm finding that in the last couple of months I've had fewer days where I didn't do anything at all. I broke everything down into quarters, months and then weeks, and from there I just got on with it.

So my recommendation is to be ambitious with your goals... within reason. Or to put it another way, set a bunch of small goals, rather than only a couple of big ones. Break them down into smaller goals with clear milestones, and set deadlines. And then don't get discouraged (as I often have to remind myself) when you don't meet one or two goals - after all, writing is subjective, and you're relying on a lot of factors you can't control to make you successful.

And after you've set all those goals, get to work!

Sunday, 6 September 2015

The Importance of TV Theme Songs

I was listening to my TV themes playlist on Spotify the other day, just to make a change from the usual routine of my 80s playlist and the ones I've set up with notable songs from 2014 and 2015 (current total: 15). Somehow this inspired me to go looking on YouTube for the video depicting all of the themes from Star Trek shows, from TOS to Enterprise, and it struck me again how important a tool the opening theme can be in setting the mood for a show.

In this case, the main idea was around the two themes that Deep Space Nine had during its run. For the first two or three seasons, the theme was very stripped down and stately - you hear the opening fanfare as we pan across the field of stars to where the station itself sits, alone in the night. The music rises only when we see the station in its entirety, and when the dissolve arrives we launch into the tune, with a single horn underlining the theme of being alone and far from home.

It's probably the most understated Star Trek theme, and my favorite. And then in Season 4 they ruined it all.

The second version, which also appears on this video, is sped up considerably from the previous one, and doesn't sync up as well with the visuals. The reveal of the station occurs a bit earlier in this new version, and then once we go into the main theme the single horn has either been joined by others or has been mixed considerably higher. And the rest of the orchestra, which in the previous version maintained a noticeable but very subdued presence, is almost intolerably loud here.

I mention this, not just to bitch for the umpteenth time about how my favorite theme got ruined between one season and the next (seriously, it was about eight years ago and I'm still traumatized), but also to underline my point about the opening music's importance in conveying the themes of the show.

Deep Space Nine was different from the others, by virtue of not being set aboard a ship with a crew that was exploring space. This meant that the writers could explore more political themes, such as war with dangerous new enemies (the Cardassians and then the Dominion), as well as the fact that your allies back home aren't necessarily on your side any more than the enemies in front of you are.

It's a pretty complicated set of ideas for Star Trek, and I can understand why they felt the need to add a new ship, the Defiant, and add a fan-favorite cast member in the shape of Michael Dorn, to keep it going. But in changing the opening music they basically threw all of those ideas out the window, which I think is unwise if you're trying to get your views in the mood for your show.

Another example would be the themes from the first two seasons of True Detective (I haven't embedded these videos, because it seems HBO has asked people to disable that function when they post them on YouTube). When I wrote about Season 1, I highlighted the opening song as an important intro to the themes the show was exploring. By laying religious and sexual imagery over the silhouettes of the characters, the show's producers were making a comment on how unreliable memory can be, and how easy it is for people to obscure the truth from one another.

The second season of True Detective was generally less successful than the first, and its opening music is no exception. We still have the silhouettes of the actors overlaid with scenes from the show's settings (California's forests and highways this time, replacing the bayous and refineries of Louisiana), but here they don't make the same kind of sense as in the first season. At the same time, the song, Nevermind by Leonard Cohen, doesn't have an obvious relationship to the show's visuals or themes the way Season 1's song did.

Which isn't to say that it's a bad song. But as I watched the second season, I realized that the producers were using industrial landscapes of Southern California in the same way they'd used rural Louisiana - where in Season 1 the landscape shots were meant to show how nature creeps up on us and gradually covers over the past, Season 2's shots of freeways and refineries were in keeping with the themes of how power and money flow, and also represented how the characters built their identities over traumas and other aspects of themselves they wanted to hide.

Or, put another way, it showed how we try and control nature (or our own natures), but that in doing so we replace it with something ugly, artificial and stifling. The problem is, almost none of this is evident in the theme (to me at least; your mileage may vary).

The point, again, is that a well-done theme sequence is meant to do a good job of explaining what you're about to see, and get you in the right frame of mind to take in the messages the show wants to convey. Good theme songs, like for True Blood, the Wire or Season 1 of True Detective, are evidence that the producers have a good handle on what they're trying to say. Even if, as in the case of True Blood, they eventually let it all get out of control and go a little silly.

On the other hand, silly isn't always bad:

Sunday, 30 August 2015

30 Years of Weird Al

Last night I caught Weird Al Yankovic's show at the Masonic Theater in San Francisco. I won't pretend it satisfied a long-standing goal of mine to see him play live, but on the other hand I'm glad I finally did - I've been listening to him off and on since I was about seven years old, with a big spike in high school, when he released Alapalooza.

To some extent I thought he'd always remain a relic of the 80s - between the silliness of that music and the rise of music videos, it seemed like the perfect time for him. I always thought he flew under the radar for much of the 90s and early 00s, but then last year he emerged with his first #1 album, Mandatory Fun, so what do I know?

My theory about him is that the kids who were listening to him in the 80s are all grown up now and in a position to buy his music for themselves and for their own kids, whereas before they had to beg their parents for the money (or, like me, had to record it onto cassette tapes). As if to prove my point, the crowd last night was all-ages - there were middle-aged people and small-ish children, and a hard-core of people in their 20s sitting down in the front row who were rocking out to the whole show.

One of the middle-aged folks was my dad, who's appreciated Weird Al about as long as I have. Oddly, we determined that this was probably his first rock concert since he took me and a friend to see REM at Shoreline Amphitheater in 1995 (my first show ever). Even though he didn't recognize a lot of the songs or the source material, I think my dad enjoyed the show - he'd have just appreciated a full rendition of Like a Surgeon, Al's parody of Like a Virgin by Madonna. What we got was a section of the song, done in a medley of other songs, in the style of a barbershop quartet.

That's Al's genius, of course - beyond the way he can change a single word or even letter to turn one song into something strange and hilarious, he also has this gift for setting one type of music to another. Admittedly this is usually polka, but he proved that he can do it more widely by singing a section of Eat It (from Michael Jackson's Beat It) to the tune of Eric Clapton's acoustic rendition of Layla from the Unplugged album. I guess Weird Al's quite rewarding to listen to if you're a music nerd, like me.

Of course, he also treated us to one of his polka medleys, of which my favorite part had to be his section of Sledgehammer by Miley Cyrus, during which he played the video on a giant screen above the stage - just imagine the video with her singing the lyrics, but his voice coming out. And you can see how he's influenced other artists - my favorite example is Chris Hardwick and Mike Phirman's band, Hard'n'Phirm, doing a bluegrass-style medley of Radiohead songs:

Anyway, last night's show was the only one he was doing in SF, so I'll just have to wait for the next tour to see him again. But someday I hope to have kids to take to see him - it'll be nice to introduce the now-bygone world of the 80s and 90s to them through him...

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Proud to be an SJW

I saw this piece in Wired this morning while looking through Twitter, and against my better judgement, have decided to share a couple of cents on the whole Sad/Rabid Puppies controversy, now that it's over (at least as far as the 2015 Hugos are concerned).

Amy Wallace's article does a good job of showing both sides of the argument, and she did well to get comments from Brad Torgerson and Larry Correia, among others. In particular, while noting that the two slates had right-leaning (or hard-right) ideological underpinnings, she was also right to point out the feelings of some fans, overheard on the con floor at Sasquan or cited as sources, that some of the other nominated fiction can be self-indulgent or redolent of academia, rather than of what people want to read.

On the other hand, Sad Puppies kind of lose their credibility when they go after stuff like Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice.

Apparently Ancillary Justice winning the Hugo last year was a bleak moment for some folks, because Leckie was writing about a society that doesn't care about gender, and uses the personal pronoun "she" to refer to everybody, whether they're biologically male or female.

I suppose this could be a bit disconcerting to some, but I remember it fondly, because it's something different (at least in my reading experience, which admittedly skews white and male), and because I appreciated it as something that would be very difficult to translate to another medium. Regardless of your politics, surely you can appreciate that a book's been written to be a book, rather than with an eye toward being adapted into a movie or TV show.

(Which is also not a dig at books that are being adapted, as I'm quite excited for SyFy's version of the Expanse books by James SA Corey)

That Ancillary Justice is troubling to some fans also seems odd because it really is a well-written novel, and an excellent example of classic-style science fiction. It strikes me as a great book to show people who think SF is dumb, or who don't know much about it, or who simply want to read something different. Frankly, the fact that I read it is odd enough - I stopped reading primarily science fiction soon after college, and switched to fantasy, in part because a lot of it was getting boring, repetitive and derivative (I hated Altered Carbon and the Reality Dysfunction, for example). When a book comes with a lot of critical buzz I'll check it out, and Ancillary Justice didn't disappoint.

(As another aside, I will admit that the sequel, Ancillary Sword, didn't grab me quite as much as Justice - it was still good, but the best analogy I can think of is Justice was like that really satisfying roar you get when you start a sports car engine, and Sword is the engine settling into more of a continuous growl. #litcritFTW).

The other point that's worth making is that if science fiction is a literature of ideas, as some fans like to insist, then you need to be open to ideas. And ideas don't always come from white dudes writing about super smart engineers in space, to use phrasing from the Wired article. In fact, when you get too many white dudes writing about engineers in space, then people outside the genre think that's the only thing that it's about, and you don't get new readers, because not everyone wants to read that.

And finally - can we stop using the term "social justice warrior" as a pejorative? How can you be against social justice, and against people getting a fair shake? One of the Sad Puppies guys, Torgerson or Correia, mentioned the stamping out of blue-collar voices from SF, which I actually agree is a bad thing. But let's not use that as an excuse to raise the barriers against other historically under-represented groups - more freedom for one group should translate to more freedom for all groups, and infighting only serves people who want to control a thing (whether it's SF voices, or politics, or economics) for their own selfish purposes.

And we don't want that, do we? We want to be able to read stuff that we like. Let's go back to that, shall we?

Monday, 17 August 2015

Save Bookbuyers in Mountain View: the Unique Pleasures of Used Bookstores

Although the once-vibrant bookstore scene around Palo Alto has been pretty comprehensively obliterated by Amazon and the collapse of Borders, I'm lucky enough to have not one but two bookshops on the street where I work, both right next to one another. The first is the Mountain View branch of Books Inc, which bills itself as the West's oldest independent bookshop, and the other is Bookbuyers, a used bookstore that's currently locked in a fight for its life.

I won't go into the litany of problems it's had, but the main issue is that it doesn't have enough cash coming in. This is a shame because it happens to be extraordinarily well-stocked, and full of books that would be pretty much impossible to find elsewhere.

Case in point: last week they were holding their monthly comic book sale, where single issues were going for 25 cents (or $1 if you bought them with trade-in credit). I had an idle look while in there on my lunch break, and found all four issues of the Elongated Man mini-series from 1992.

Maybe I'm the only person in the world who'd say this, but that was a hell of a find. It was written by Gerard Jones, who wrote the Justice League Europe book during the "Bwah-ha-ha" years when Keith Giffen was masterminding the Justice League books, and was drawn by Mike Parobeck, whose best known work was possibly on the Batman Adventures tie-in comic to the Animated Series, and who died way too early, at the age of 30, of complications from diabetes.

Those Justice League America and Justice League Europe books were what hooked me on DC Comics, and finding the Elongated Man series was like unearthing a long-lost B-side. It's mostly quite silly, juvenile, and the Italian dialogue, where it appears, is abysmal (though still better than I expected), but three issues in and I'm charmed. Ralph and Sue Dibny are characters I first encountered in JLE, and it's nice seeing them take center-stage, especially in light of what happened to them in Identity Crisis.

Also, I remember even now how bad I felt when I heard Parobeck had died, so that it's almost miraculous to find another example of his body of work (I first encountered his cartoony but fluid style in the ten-issue Justice Society of America series, and in El Diablo, which was his first big assignment).

As I noted to a friend the day after I found them, those books are probably worth nothing at all now, but to me they're priceless. DC's gotten quite good about reprinting stories in trade paperback form, but I can't imagine there's much demand for Elongated Man 1-4, so I'm happy I had a look in Bookbuyers's comic boxes when I did.

And that's why it'd be a shame if Bookbuyers went under: like any good used bookstore, it's messy and labyrinthine and impossible to find anything without dedicating time to searching. But if you put in the time, you're likely to find something that's fallen between the cracks of the publishing industry - something worthwhile, but that failed to gain enough of an audience to stay in print. And in addition, Bookbuyers is putting on events to make it even more of a place for communities to form - book clubs and author talks and more. One author talk I went to was by a local writer who set part of her debut novel in Bookbuyers itself, so it's even becoming responsible for literature.

You might argue that its business model shows that it can't hack it in a world of Amazon and e-books more generally. But, much as I love that I can buy a book on my phone while sitting in the Rose Garden in Portland, and start reading it straight away, there's also something to be said for the pleasure of finding something unexpected and physical.

Pretty much all of the new books and comics are coming out on Kindle, and classics from Mark Twain or Jane Austen are available for free, but like everything nowadays, there's a huge middle-section that's being lost, as it's too difficult to digitize and too new to be public domain. I'd hate to see a gap that size in our cultural patrimony, just because we're too addled by technology to appreciate the tactile pleasures of a book or comic.

So go to Bookbuyers! Or to your local used bookstore, wherever you might find it. Pick something up, riffle through it (gently), and try and imagine how hard it would be to find in Barnes and Noble. And then buy it and take it home.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

In Praise of Fantasy Football

Once again we're at the start of a new English Premier League season, bringing with it all the things you'd expect: transfer rumors, managerial sackings and the odd instance of fan misbehavior (typically in the form of racism or violence). But enough nostalgia for my days in London, which in any case I covered at around this time last year - no, today I want to talk about the humble fantasy league.

While I went around 9 years between the one I participated in at my first job (the venerable Blundersliga) and the one I'm on now, run through the Premier League's own site, it's actually hard to remember what life was like without it. OK, that might be overstating things, since I also just went without for the past couple of months... but there was definitely something missing from my life.

But it's back now, and so is my (admittedly limited) interest in the doings of mid- or low-tier Premiership sides like Everton or Norwich. During those 9 long years where I didn't join a league, the start of the season was always a trial, because I had no real interest in any of the teams. I generally don't commit to supporting any Premiership sides, because of the inevitable conflict when they meet an Italian team I support, so trying to muster some interest in the likelihood of Spurs winning the league was always a bit beyond me.

But add in the prospect of earning points and competing with friends, family members and colleagues who work 5,000 miles away and whom you've never met, and suddenly I am quite interested, thank you, in how many goals Harry Kane is likely to score this season. Chris Hardwick once summed up the appeal of Dungeons & Dragons as a hybrid of fantasy and math ("squeeeee"), and this is just as valid in fantasy sports, which is pretty much just Dungeons & Dragons for jocks.

In fact, from what I can tell soccer is actually a pretty dumbed-down version - listening to my friends who play fantasy football (NFL) or baseball tells me that they immerse themselves in a lot more stats than I do. I'm mainly interested in how many goals, assists and clean sheets my team will get, along with the not insignificant question of whether they're playing at all - American sports have gone through the looking glass and introduced something where you can have athletes from all sports on one team.

Crazy, huh? I wanted to add some impact to that statement by listing athletes from each major sports league in America, but after Lebron James I couldn't think of anybody. Sorry. But I'm sure if you can be bothered to think about three enormously stat-driven sports at once, it must be super-fun.

As I said, though, I prefer the simpler pleasures of obsessively watching Sky Sports News for news of who's registered a clean sheet or not, only to return to the office on Monday to discover that my entire starting lineup was out through injury, international duty or simply being too shit to start. That and, of course, coming up with witty comments on what my team did during the week.

This was why the Blundersliga was my favorite experience. It was set up by my friend and coworker Mike, who laboriously went through the scores in the Times on Monday and exhorted the rest of us managers to say something clever about our performance. I filled in for him once when he was on holiday, and I can report that it was a pretty serious job, checking each player's score and then doling out the points.

Of course, the reason I'm so nostalgic for the post-match reports is that I found early on that you could do all kinds of wonderful things with them. I introduced, for instance, a brash American club chairman named Baz Vegas, who was guilty of all kinds of misdemeanors week to week; I also lifted wholesale from the Mike Myers opus, "Austin Powers in: Goldmember" to make a lot of silly Dutch jokes involving then-Manchester United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy.

But I think I can say that my crowning achievement was when I stole the Blundersliga trophy (yes, Mike had a trophy made) off my flatmate Ian's desk, and hid it for several months in various spots around the office, using the post-match reports to give him clues, which, sadly, he never really bothered to follow up. In the event, the trophy spent quite a long time at the back of a filing cabinet, in the Germany section.

So yes, I miss that. There's not really an element of trash-talking in my current leagues (I'm participating in three, all via my one team, the storied Westcliff Athletic, on the Premier League site). Or if there is, I'm not privy - but I do get to talk tactics with my sister, who's revealed herself to be even more obsessed with it than I.

However, if you think it's nothing more than a way to be silly and squabble with others, I can say that my experience last year gave me quite the crash course in economics. The main thing was value - how many points does a player costing X score, and is X worth the extra points when he's compared to a player who scores fewer points, but costs X-3? And how much money should I tie up in a player I'm signing exclusively to sit on my bench?

I'm not sure how applicable this is in anything other than fantasy sports, but I need some way to justify all the time I've spent on it, so please indulge me.

The other question is how to set up your team so that it's not 100% copied from someone else - after all, if all of your starting XI are in your nearest rival's team, you can neither catch up to them nor widen the gap between you.

In any case, I have to go see how many points I received from today's matches, and prepare for tomorrow's game. If you need me, I'll be poring over the form sheets of players from the lowest depths of the Premier League - think titans like Watford and Bournemouth.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Hyperion and the Start of Your Story: Why Worldbuilding Shouldn't Be an Infodump

Since moving back to the US more than a year ago, I've been doing a lot of re-reading. Last year it was my old Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux travel books, and this year it's Dan Simmon's Hyperion. Hyperion, and the rest of the books in the series (The Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, The Rise of Endymion) were some of my favorite books in late high school and early college, and they've been calling to me from their shelves since I got back here.

The book that started it all

(Quick note before we continue: major spoilers to come. The books have been out since 1989, so you really ought to have read them by now, but just warning you)

Another reason I wanted to revisit Hyperion was because of the thematic links with Mass Effect. Both feature organic beings in conflict with artificial intelligences, and a cataclysm where the network linking the galaxy together falls. So I was curious to see just how much more of Mass Effect I could find in Hyperion, or if those were the only similarities.

And finally, there's the start of the novel:

"The Hegemony Consul sat on the balcony of his ebony spaceship and played Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C Minor on an ancient but well-maintained Steinway while great, green saurian things surged and bellowed in the swamps below. A thunderstorm was brewing to the north. Bruise-black clouds silhouetted a forest of giant gymnosperms while stratocumulus towered nine kilometers high in a violent sky. Lightning rippled along the horizon. Closer to the ship, occasional vague, green reptilian shapes would blunder into the interdiction field, cry out, and then crash away through indigo mists. The Consul concentrated on a difficult section of the Prelude and ignored the approach of storm and nightfall.

The fatline receiver chimed."

A few years ago I discovered Dan Simmons's occasional columns on the craft, called Writing Well. While they sometimes held hints of the political direction his fiction was taking (the right-wing variety of shrill), and while they also sometimes left me even less hopeful about my chances of succeeding than before, they also held some important nuggets of wisdom, which I've tried to follow ever since.

One is the admonition to read at least six top-flight authors per year; this is to see how the very best writers structure their stories and their prose, and (as an avid SFF reader) a chance to read more widely in other genres. While I don't do a close reading of these six, exposure to them is definitely beneficial (even if it highlights the difference in quality of prose of a lot of what I normally read).

Another thing that stuck with me was the beginning. Simmons once took the beginning of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, and contrasted it with Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (this also directly led to me reading both novels). While the two couldn't be more different in tone and subject matter and structure, they both succeed in introducing the world that the reader is stepping into - not by explaining backstory or info-dumping the name and provenance of every character, but by showing us the themes and the rules by which these novels operate.

Or, as Simmons himself put it, world-building.

So, having read that column, I subsequently went to my local bookstore to see if he'd put the same thing into practice in his own book (this was in London, and my copy of Hyperion still lived here in Palo Alto). The passage above is what I found, and sure enough, it does exactly that.

Look at the scene: a man's playing Rachmaninoff on the piano. But he's on a spaceship, on an alien planet. Inside it's quiet enough for him to hear the "chime" of an incoming call, but outside the ship is chaos, with animals crashing into the shields and a violent storm brewing.

Throughout the rest of the book, as we hear the other characters' stories, we learn more about the wider universe: how humanity is scattered throughout the World Web on a variety of different worlds, but the society's position is precarious due to the threat of the "barbarian" Ousters; how the destruction of Earth has created a society obsessed with looking back and re-creating various facets of the society that came from Earth.

One of the pilgrims is a Catholic priest, and Simmons is at pains to stress that the Church continues, but is in its death throes, at least until the discovery (later) of the cruciform parasites leads to its resurgence and an even more stunted, backward-looking society. The poetry of John Keats is also particularly prevalent in the book, existing alongside ever-more advanced weaponry.

The opening scene has all of those themes, and presents them elegantly: old vs new, order vs chaos, stasis vs change. You may quibble that the storm is a little overdone thematically (who wants to bet that Simmons, as a placeholder, initially wrote "It was a dark and stormy night" here?), but it does represent the impending invasion that the Consul learns about in the following paragraphs.

It's been so long since I first read Hyperion that I can't recall how the passage first struck me; all I do remember is the (more recent) feeling of awe that, with my knowledge of the rest of the story, everything was already there in the first paragraph. But it clearly worked to hook me and reel me in to the rest of the story (for what it's worth, the first book in the series I ever picked up was The Fall of Hyperion, not knowing it was a sequel, and found that it made no sense - but I appreciated the second book much more having read this one).

As I said above, this is what Simmons means by world-building. Instead of spending too much time lovingly describing your secondary world's magic system or FTL drives, he advocates building the world through the themes you're exploring - which is, of course, the important thing. After all, nobody can describe how magic works in Lord of the Rings, or how hyperdrive works in Star Wars... they just knows it works.

It may seem like a tall order to get the themes in with the very first paragraph, but it's also helpful to remember Stephen King's suggestion: get the first draft done, and then start worrying about the themes in the subsequent drafts.

All stuff I'm hoping to put in practice for my own book.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Real Madrid and Barcelona really are the best, aren't they?

I recently finished Fear and Loathing in La Liga, an account of the Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry written by Sid Lowe, who covers Spanish football for, among others, the Guardian. I first became acquainted with Sid's work through the Guardian Football Weekly podcast, and then his weekly column rounding up the latest doings in Spanish football.

I'm not the biggest fan of Spanish football, of course. I've spoken before of how boring I find it that La Liga is effectively dominated by only two teams, and always has been. Looking through the lists of championships for other countries, you do typically see one team that's dominated (rather than two), but you also see that other teams have had periods of dominance, sometimes for large parts of decades - for example, the Liverpool teams of the 1970s and 80s. In other leagues teams rise, shine for a while, then fall.

Not so in Spain. In recent memory, the longest the league's gone without either Real or Barça winning it was 4 years in the 80s, when Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad won it twice apiece. The only longer streak when neither won it was for the five years right after the Civil War, or eight if you count the three seasons before war broke out (La Liga was suspended during that time). Those streaks drop to two years if you look for seasons when Real or Barça failed to make the top two spots.

Which is why Lowe's book is a history of the league, as well - Spanish football makes little sense outside the framework of Real vs Barça. He does a good job of picking apart the politics that have latched on to the rivalry, of Catalonia vs Spain, of left-wing vs right-wing, and the different sides in the Civil War. Barcelona fans tend to think of themselves as representing the left, and of Real as being Francisco Franco's pet team - but Lowe shows how much more complicated the reality, especially now that we're 40 years on from Franco's death and 35 since Spain opened to the rest of Europe.

Of course, Real has always been one of my favorite teams to hate, since the first time I saw them was in the 1998 Champions League victory over my hometown team of Juventus. I was only too willing to buy into the propaganda of Barcelona as mes que un club (more than a club), with their Dutch influence and, until a few years ago, their shirt sponsorship deal with Unicef, rather than a traditional for-profit entity.

Admittedly, they've gone and ruined that a bit by getting sponsored by Qatar, of all places, but that didn't stop me enjoying the two epic dismantlings of Manchester United, in 2009 and 2011. The latter of the two I watched in a pub in Bath with my dad, and it was hard not to cheer to see entertaining, passing football win out against kick-and-rush.

What really struck me about the book, though, was how different the narrative in Spain was for the post-war period compared with Italy or Germany, or even the UK. This is, of course, because Spain remained neutral during the war; even though Franco was greatly influenced by Mussolini and Hitler, and benefited from their weapons and materiel during the Civil War, he didn't send Spanish troops to participate, and so was left alone in 1945.

As I read Fear and Loathing, I couldn't help wondering what Italian history would have been like if Mussolini had done the same thing. There was an Italian author a few years ago who imagined just such a scenario, in which Italy thereby became a European and even a world power, but I doubt it would have happened like that (after all, Spain isn't exactly a power-player these days). It took a while, but Germany eventually faced up to its role in World War II; Spain, meanwhile, let its own Fascist dictatorship run its course (and was enormously lucky that King Juan Carlos, Franco's successor, turned out to favor democracy). Italy, by contrast, did neither, which is why Mussolini's legacy continues to distort Italian politics - sometimes literally, as in the case of his granddaughter Alessandra.

Back to the football, though, I'd say the greatest disappointment of Sid Lowe's book is how he glosses over the last few years. I suppose this couldn't be any other way, as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are probably harder to get interviews with than greats from the past, like Hristo Stoichkov or Alfredo di Stefano. But it's still a shame not to have more on how the current situation, where Messi and Ronaldo seem to break each other's records every week, looks as an extension of the past.

Still, it's not hard to draw your own conclusions. Real and Barça long ago outgrew the rest of the Spanish league, such that they compete on European Cups. This year's Barça triumph against Juventus, and last year's Real win against hometown rivals Atletico, are just an extension of the rivalry - effectively, Barcelona saying to Real, "You may have more European Cups than anybody, you may have won your tenth, but we've been catching up."

With that in mind, it's hard to see when the rest of Europe catching up - there have been years when Real or Barça have lost, but seen through Sid Lowe's book, those are looking more and more like blips.  After all, even during England's dominance in the Champions League, Barcelona won every time it got to the final.

It'd be nice to see the rest of Europe catch up, but even if they don't, at least Real and Barça will provide good entertainment.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

A Taste of Portland

Just got back this week from a trip to Portland, and I'm wondering why the heck it took me so long to visit!

Actually, I know exactly why: not having lived in the US for a long time, it was quite difficult to justify trips to random places that weren't major international hubs. But it begs the question of why I got the idea in the first place...

I've always been glancingly familiar with the place - Powell's City of Books, Portlandia and Chuck Palahniuk, for instance - and in more recent years this was allied with an interest in the Pacific Northwest in general. I almost went to journalism school at University of Oregon in Eugene, to boot (though I don't regret choosing to go to New York instead). More recently, I started watching Grimm, NBC's extraordinarily silly but addictive show based on fairy tales, so it's been top of mind for a while.

So the opportunity came up this year, and I figured on spending almost a week there - I've had good weeks off on my own in the likes of Paris and Singapore, so I thought I'd try it out in the continental US. I found cheap flights and an expensive hotel, got a guidebook and got in touch with a friend from college who (it turns out) lives there.

It was nice to experience a relatively compact American city, which I could get around by public transport or even on foot - I've really only spent time in New York and SF and LA, so Portland's size (600,000 in the city and 3 million or so in the metropolitan area) was a nice change. The place also felt like a slightly larger, less scuzzy version of Berkeley. Not that I have anything against Berkeley in general, but my abiding memories of the place include my dad and grandma being politely asked by a drug dealer to take another set of stairs up to where we'd parked in a parking structure there, or a guy outside a shop rather less politely flicking his cigarette at my dad's head and accusing him of being an imperialist.

Portland's motto

I'm sure Portland is full of experiences like that, but the place seemed to be pretty free of pretensions - unlike hipsters in London or SF, folks mostly just seemed to go about their own business, and were shockingly polite. When I was taking the MAX into town from the airport on my first day, there was a guy helping out another tourist by directing her to her stop, and when she got off he said to her, "Have a nice day!" I defy you to find a similar experience on BART, the subway or the Tube.

Not that Portland's completely without problems. Despite being possibly the most expensive hotel I've ever stayed in, the Courtyard Portland Convention Center was in a not particularly desirable part of town on the northeast side of town. I went exploring a couple of times (looking for a drugstore and a post office, respectively), and while I never felt unsafe, it certainly looked more rundown than the neighborhoods west of the Willamette. I later discovered that the Northeast was traditionally where Portland's African-American community was forced to live; much like Harlem in New York, it's clear that urban renewal hasn't been good for everybody.

I may have spaced the hotel search until it was too late, but my impression is that there's not a lot of middle ground - you can either pay loads, or stay in a shitty neighborhood far from downtown (or both), but there isn't much under $1,000 for a week. The McMenamin hotels might be the exception, but I didn't book those because they weren't available for the times I was there.

As far as attractions, I mainly eschewed the breweries, and found museums to haunt instead. I spent a fun enough morning at Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and a nice afternoon at the Portland Art Museum. There was a lot of art from the last 150 years or so at the latter, including a room devoted to the French impressionists, which on consideration is probably my favorite style and period. There was a lot more modern and contemporary art, but I returned to the Impressionist room on my way out of the museum, and was fortunate enough to find that an employee was giving a friend of his a personal tour.

Portland also seems to have rather visible Asian communities, as evidenced by the Japanese Garden over by Washington Park, and the Lan Su Chinese garden in Chinatown. The former is situated on a hill overlooking town, and it comes with beautiful views of Mount Hood; Lan Su, meanwhile, is in the middle of probably the most rundown part of downtown Portland, but once you entered the walls it was easy to forget you were in the middle of a city. I visited the morning before I left, and spent a nice hour first wandering the walkways and then enjoying some dim sum and tea in the tea house.

The Lan Su Chinese Garden

Another thing I didn't do much of was the outdoorsy stuff that Oregon is famous for, mainly because I didn't want to rent a car. But my friend did take me on a walk along the Springwood Trail, along the Willamette, down to Sellwood and back up along the west side of the river. That took us back through OHSU and the Waterfront, which plays host to the Saturday Market every week.

The other thing I kind of splurged on was food - my first night in town I found one of the food cart pods and downed a pair of Korean tacos, which set the tone for a week of good eating. I'm not suggesting there aren't any big chains in Portland, but it was certainly easy to find something local, especially downtown, and there was a good range of prices, from the food carts up to Swank and Swine, where my friend suggested getting dinner the second night I was in town.

The Voodoo Doll, from Voodoo Doughnut

I've generally said that European cities are better for things to see, while American cities are better for things to do (ie, outdoors pursuits), but I'm happy to see that this doesn't necessarily apply to Portland. If you like city breaks, taking in museums, bookstores and nice food, it's a nice getaway for anything up to a week.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Mass Effect and the Curse of Becoming the New Star Wars

I just finished the Mass Effect trilogy last weekend, amid reports that the next game in the series has finally been given a name (along with almost exactly nothing else). It's fair to say that as I played through Mass Effect 3, it started to consume my life, much like a Reaper consuming a planet's population (now there's an in-joke for you). Also, let me just warn you up top:

It also goes without saying that this is his favorite blog.

To give you an idea, I took the better part of a year to finish Mass Effect 1, as I was doing my usual thing of getting bored and switching out to catch up with other games. I did something similar when I started Mass Effect 2, but only had a single break, after which I powered through the rest of the game and started immediately on part 3, which I played without a single break. Probably the last game I played so single-mindedly was on the NES.

Part of the reason for this fanaticism is clearly the story. Over the three installments you guide your character, Commander Shepard, from life as an ordinary soldier to the person who saves the galaxy from the Reaper threat. At the start you choose how Shepard looks and what his skills and abilities are (I played as a dude, so I'll be referring to Shep as "he" from here on), and then you choose how he reacts to people and situations.

This all involves you more heavily than the so-called sandbox games, like Skyrim or GTA, especially because choices made in one game eventually impact later games - not to the point of keeping you from winning at the end of ME3, but they do affect who's on your team or available to help with the final battle.

One point that Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V Gordon made on their Indoor Kids podcasts relating to Mass Effect is that the combat is actually pretty bad compared to, say, Gears of War, but that the main draw is the story. While I've never played Gears, I can see what they mean - and frankly, the fact that the story's such a big part of the game makes up for it. I don't remember all the times it kept me from diving for cover (possibly because there were so many that they blur together after a while), but I do recall the feelings of WTF when I was forced to send one of two characters to their deaths, or when I found myself choosing whether the Quarians or the Geth should survive.

I believe the Indoor Kids also said something to the effect that Mass Effect was effectively this generation's Star Wars, which I find compelling but not necessarily accurate. I could quibble and say that it's more Babylon 5, but really I just don't think it has the cultural reach of Star Wars or Star Trek. Video games are still a niche pursuit, at least at the level of blockbuster games like Mass Effect - they might make jokes about the ending on shows like HBO's Silicon Valley, but I'd say it's still too left-field for something like the Big Bang Theory.

Yet it does hold up with something like the Hyperion series, by Dan Simmons (as the guest on those Indoor Kids episodes, Nick Ahrens, said). Like any good novel, the Mass Effect games present you with a wider world and the rules under which it operates - you can make certain choices (like who to sacrifice at the end of ME1, or with whom to pursue a relationship), but at the end you've gone through a set number of plot points. And like a novel, there are loads of other, smaller stories spider-webbing out of the main narrative, but here you can choose to pursue or ignore them.

Now, when Kumail and Emily said that Mass Effect was like Star Wars (again, assuming it was them who said it), what I suspect they meant is that the game had the same emotional resonance as when Luke blows up the Death Star or rescues Darth Vader's humanity. I mentioned my WTF feelings when sending people to their deaths - I also found myself heartbroken at plot points like Mordin, my Salarian scientist from ME2, sacrificing his life to propagate the cure for the Krogan genophage in ME3, resolving a giant plot thread from way back in ME1.

Because there was time to range around the ship between missions, you'd get to chat to crewmates, and learn that, for instance, Mordin was fond of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. That's one example, but the point is that Mass Effect went out of its way to flesh its characters out, which I've seen little of in the other games I've been playing lately.

As for the ending, I have to say that I'm not that disappointed. I think the extended endings were better, and Bioware should have added those in from the start, but overall I think they had the concept right. There was a sense that all your choices over three games had led to this point - control the Reapers, destroy them or live with them. As I chose my course, I had the same doubt that assailed me whenever there was a big choice, but I also had the precedent of all my previous choices - in the end I chose destruction, knowing that it would also mean the death of my synthetic crewmate, EDI, who had also powered my ship. And while that was sad, it also felt like I had to be loyal to the Shepard character as I'd developed him - the way others played would likely have led them to other choices, and perhaps that's why the game's ending was so controversial.

In any case, I've given myself a break from all the feels, but I expect that at some point soon I'll be trying again - seeing the effects of different choices and character configurations. Which is another feature of the great SF stories, whatever their medium - wanting to experience them again.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

The Bygone World of Britpop

2015 is turning out to be a big year for anniversaries. The one most in my mind on January 1st was Back to the Future Part II, which was set in 1985 and 2015 (and I feel it's a shame I'm not visiting Vietnam this year to commemorate that poster in the background of one of the shots).

But more recently I read something that reminded me of a more personal anniversary. 2015 marks two decades since the apex of the Britpop movement of music, which was so important to me as a teenager. December 26th will also mark the twentieth anniversary of my first time stepping on British soil (at least outside Heathrow), which was accompanied by a frenetic CD-buying expedition to pick up the exciting new albums by Blur (The Great Escape), Pulp (Different Class) and... er... Menswear. Guess they can't all be winners.

So when I realized that, I decided to reread The Last Party, John Harris's account of the Britpop years, informed by his own experiences in the thick of it, when he was a music journalist. But the interesting thing is, as I read, it occurred to me that not only was I reading a chronicle of a bygone time, I was also reading an artifact of that bygone time's last gasp.

I got the book in 2004, toward the end of my first stint living in Britain. Despite the fact that we were then almost a decade removed from Britpop's glory years, it didn't feel like 1995 was that remote. For a couple of years, for instance, I'd revived the old Blur v Oasis debate with my flatmate Ian, who claimed to be northern (despite being from Telford, in the Midlands), so he was an Oasis partisan. My next flatmate, Dave, was a few years older and had the original LP singles off Suede's first album, which I remember handling with the due reverence the one time he brought them out to show off.

More importantly, 2004 was before YouTube and Facebook, and before iTunes had effectively killed physical music sales and the album as artistic statement. As such, it was also the year I bought the most CDs I've ever bought before or since - 48, to be precise. I once held the lofty ambition of averaging a new CD each week, but I don't think I ever achieved it. More to the point, I spent 2014 (and all of 2015 so far) without buying any new music, so it's unlikely I ever will hit that magical number of 52.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that 2004 had more in common with 1995 than it does with 2015. Listening to Radio One on Sunday mornings with the paper, poring over the Observer Music Monthly's list of the 100 best British albums of all time, seeking out those British albums whenever I went to Camden Town or Oxford Street... these are all activities that I had long ceased to participate in by the time my second stint in Britain came to an end two years ago (although I do still have a look at that Observer list from time to time).

The way The Last Party talks about the music industry, it's clear that those dynamics were effectively still valid - guitar bands could still storm the charts, and it mattered when they released an album, rather than a bunch of singles. And it was possible for mainstream British culture (which I guess means white people) to coalesce around this shared musical heritage that drew on familiar sources like the Beatles and the Kinks and the Rolling Stones.

In fact, 2004 and 2005 were effectively the second wave of Britpop, when a bunch of bands (eg Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party, the Futureheads) drew inspiration from the likes of Blur and Pulp to once again emphasize the importance of Britishness in their music.

Now it's hard to see anything like that happening again. I mentioned in that previous blog that most of those bands from 2004-05 failed to live up to early promise. At the same time, the indie network that made possible the rise from nowhere of Blur and Oasis is long gone - and nobody's willing to throw stupid money at guitar bands because there isn't any money left to throw.

What's equally disappointing is that even if such bands could break through, there are no places for someone like me to encounter them, at least here on the West Coast. I first heard Pulp's single Underwear on Live 105's Import Cafe, and sat wide-eyed watching MTV videos of Common People and Blur's Country House. Now Live 105's new music is all shoved into the Sunday evening ghetto, and MTV realized long ago that nobody watches music videos.

Britain is also, I think, a very different country than it was eleven years ago. Back then you could talk about Suede's inspirations, which were the crumbling parts of the country ignored by over a decade of Thatcherism, and people knew what you were talking about. Now Britain's back in the hands of the Tories, and will be for at least another five years, and those old politics are coming back. It may be more inclusive of people of color or of the LGBTQ community, but Maggie Thatcher's spiteful treatment of the poor is back with a vengeance, thanks to David Cameron and George Osborne's austerity politics.

The difference between now and the 80s, though, is that 30 years ago there was a welfare system that budding musicians could sign onto. Without glorifying dole culture, it is worth noting that a lot of the music that came out in the 90s had passed through life on welfare - these were effectively marginalized people. Now it's hard to see where the next Pulp or Oasis will come from - the next version of Blur should be okay, because they represented a very middle class type of Britishness that was the opposite, in many ways, of the bands from the north.

But who knows - maybe in a couple of years another Labour leader will come along who, like Tony Blair, headed up a band in college. And if he or she draws from this decade's dubstep, rather than guitar-based music, maybe it'll be the key to breaking British music out of its current doldrums.