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.