Jul 23 2015

Review: Mr. Holmes

I’ve often said I would go to see Sir Ian McKellen read his shopping list. I’m also a huge Sherlock Holmes fan. Put those two together and Mr. Holmes looked like the perfect movie for me.

Sure, I heard it was a bit slow paced. No action at all. Just a drama about an aging detective, with no murder to be solved. But that didn’t stop me from going. Remember? I would go see the man, “. . . read his shopping list?” I wasn’t expecting much, outside of some marvelous acting from McKellen.

And I got that. Oh yeah, I got that in spades. I also watched excellent performances by every single supporting character. A nice surprise. And the script by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullen, was top-notch; another nice surprise.

But what really boggled me was the extent to which Mr. Holmes seemed like custom crack designed just for me.

What am I talking about? I like books and movies that make me work a little bit. Straight murder mysteries are right up my alley, but so are stories where the mystery is more about what is really happening underneath the obvious to and fro of the characters. Where every action, every nuance, are clues to a more existential riddle relating to the why and wherefore of the story. Where the story leads to a surprise ending, all the more surprising because only when you get there can you see how that ending was inevitable.

These kind of stories are really hard to write. I should know, I’m working on one of my own right now. And to make that story still lead to a very human and very satisfying denouement; while making that ending the last thing the audience expects? Hardest of all and the kind of ending I dream of writing myself.

Mr. Holmes delivers that kind of mystery and that kind of ending. And it does it while hanging a hundred Chekov’s guns on every wall and then firing each and every one in succession in the last few scenes of the movie. There was not a wasted word, not an extraneous moment here. Every frame worked as part of the whole to deliver a great ending.

And that is why I can’t tell you anything that happens in the movie. This is a film where everything is a spoiler.

I can only tell you this; the Sherlock Holmes written by Cullen and delivered by McKellen is the classic Holmes. A curmudgeon. A lonely man made all the more lonely by the fact that, outside of a recluse brother and his own greatest enemy, he must live in a world nearly bereft of intellectual equals. Certainly that Holmes has an attachment to Watson and to others, but more like one would love a dog than anything else.

This is the Holmes originally created by Doyle, not one of the more modern versions and most certainly not the Holmes made famous by Basil Rathbone. No, this is the Holmes that, until now, was best played by Jeremy Brett.

Only, instead of catching murderers, Cullen and McKellen’s Holmes is dealing with the unpleasant realities of encroaching senility and impending death. And with the weight of the great failure that forced him into retirement at his isolated house with only his bees, his housekeeper, and her son for company.

One can only wonder how McKellen felt, playing a 94 year old Holmes. At the age of 76 himself, putting on the persona of a man only a few steps closer to death must have been wearing. To move with obvious difficulty, displaying the slack expressions of age and the memory of a failing brain. It must have felt a bit like tempting the Reaper.

But play that ailing and infirm Holmes he did, masterfully. And he made the complex and wonderful ending of this movie work on every level.

As I said, this seemed like crack made just for me. Your mileage might vary. But if you are willing to bring something to your entertainment instead of having it passively delivered to your brain, I think you might like it too. Give this slow, quiet, amazing movie a chance. It might turn out you like the same kind of crack.

 

Jul 17 2015

Chapter 10 of ‘Closing the Circuit’

Chapter 10, Meditation: Worth.

If you aren’t already reading CtC, start with Chapter 1, First steps are the hardest.

Restarting my Clarion West Write-a-thon project for 2015! Please sponsor me.

Jul 09 2015

Another year, another Clarion West Writeathon

Yeah, it’s happening again. The Clarion West Writeathon. A major fund raiser for Clarion West every year; where writers set goals and you help to support Clarion West by sponsoring those writers. As always, the list of participating writers is long, but in it you will find some famous names and more than a few not so famous.

Clarion West has an important mission: helping to train the next generation of Science Fiction writers by putting them through an intensive six week ‘boot camp’, designed to give them the tools they need to blow us all away with their creativity and passion. These are writers who are already good, the goal is to make them great. And it is a process that works, just take a look at some of the things Clarion West alumni are up to!

So, if you like to read Science Fiction, support Clarion West by sponsoring a writer or three. I will be.

I will also be participating. Writing and trying to raise money to continue Clarion West’s mission.

If nothing else, it’s an excuse to write. And I have been writing, Since the start of the writeathon I have posted two new chapters of my serial novel Closing the Circuit here:

For the writeathon my goal is to post a new chapter of CtC a week. I don’t expect to maintain that pace afterwards, but I do intend to keep working on it. In the meantime that is six new chapters for you to read.

So, please sponsor me in the Clarion West Write-a-thon. Let’s make this the best fund raiser for Clarion West ever!

Jul 08 2015

Chapter 9 of ‘Closing the Circuit’

Chapter 9, Like the turning of the night.

If you aren’t already reading CtC, start with Chapter 1, First steps are the hardest.

Restarting my Clarion West Write-a-thon project for 2015! Please sponsor me.

Jun 27 2015

Publishing, Copyright, and the Economics of Abundance

If you love books you should read this long article on publishing by Richard Nash: ‘What is the Business of Literature’. In it, Nash postulates that publishing was the first industry in the world to confront the realities of post-scarcity economics, due to advances in printing presses lowering the cost of entry.

Nash says:

“Advances in printing itself (bigger, faster, more colors), along with allied manufacturing and advances in distribution (faster, higher, further), meant that books were able to penetrate deep into society, woven into the fabric of the everyday.”

The publishing industry responded with artificial scarcity. First by gentlemen’s agreements, then by Copyright law, they enabled themselves to continue printing books at a higher rate of return than would have otherwise been the case.

But, you say, Copyright law protects the author! Well, yes. But that wasn’t always the case. And the modern formalization of Copyright law still protects the publisher disproportionately. Why? Well since an author can not sell a book without access to a printing press and a distribution mechanism, the publisher retains the upper hand.

As Nash puts it:

“Copyright, though nominally instituted to encourage the creation of a work, has as its only logical purpose the encouragement of the reproduction of the work.”

You see, any system dependent on scarcity creates two classes of people: those who have something and others who want it. The class of those who have the thing naturally want to maximize the value they can extract from it.

Artificial scarcity is no different. It requires a class system and generates elites. In the end it consolidates power with the elites. In this case the elites are not the ones creating the thing in question! (The writers) Instead they are the ones standing between those who create and those who consume. (The publishers.) And they use the power of law to arbitrage that position.

They decide what is ‘literature’ and what is not. They decide what is ‘publishable’ and what is not. They are the ones controlling access to the reader, so the writer must apply to them for that access. Copyright, therefore, acts in the favor of the publisher even when it is bestowed upon the author!

All well and good, so long as the people making those choices truly are the elites. So long as their personal tastes allow them to honestly pick the best of those manuscripts arriving over the transom. In that case the reader benefits from the winnowing and the artificial scarcity it creates.

Fast-forward 200 years? You end up with publishing empires. Seven companies producing most published books. Outside there exists a rebel alliance of small publishers and indie publishers and self-publishers. But inside the accountants became increasingly more powerful than the editors. The winnowing became less about what is good and more about what is marketable.

These are not the same things.

And the rebel alliance? Well, it isn’t really allied. Instead it is a mixed bag of individuals and small companies each looking towards their own success and not to how they, as a group, can resist the empires.

But, you say, what about digital publishing? What about ebooks? What about the web? What about the Long Tail?

Well, what about them? Things have changed a little, but mostly in terms of which empire is controlling access to the reader. (A battle is still being waged on that front.) Even the explosion of blogs on the web petered out as blogs themselves became commercial enterprises.

It is apparent the economics of abundance tends to encourage the creation of artificial scarcity.

Think about that for a minute. Ever read Ian M. Banks ‘Culture’ novels? One of the features of The Culture is a post-scarcity economic structure. In many ways this economic structure is the final triumph of the proletariat, as no one controls access to anything. Even drugs can be produced by glands in each individual. Nothing is scarce.

So, ask your self this: Would The Culture allow Copyright? Or would allowing any kind of artificial scarcity collapse the system?

I suspect the latter. Yes, we are talking about an imaginary anarchist utopia. But the imperatives are such that it can only work if everything, except reputation, is free. Free as in liberty, not free as in beer. In the end it is about people making choices for themselves.

In Nash’s article, he comes to a similar conclusion:

“Richard Stallman has argued that the central bargain in copyright is that the public gives up a right they couldn’t actually use. Until recently, it was more expensive to make a copy of a book than it was to simply buy the book. So when society agreed to grant authors and publishers the monopoly, it was a good bargain. Now that the public can make copies of something, they are giving up a right they could in fact enjoy—or, rather, the public has proceeded to make copies anyway, regardless of the previous bargain, a kind of jury nullification. As with any law that loses the consent of the governed because it no longer reflects the logic of society, the law is not overturned, just ignored. It recedes into the past, like laws forbidding pigs to enter saloons or alcohol sold on Sundays or adultery or interracial marriage.”

Nash then goes on to discuss how new manufacturing technologies are tending the same way. This then leading to the entrenched empires fighting back with every tool at their disposal. (Mostly lawyers.) He even quotes Shirky’s Rule: “Institutions will try to preserve the problems to which they are a solution.”

Unfortunately Nash’s solution is essentially more of the same:

“Let’s restore to publishing its true reputation—not as a hedge against the future, not as a bulwark against radical change, not as a citadel amidst the barbarians, but rather as the future at hand, as the radical agent of change, as the barbarian. The business of literature is blowing shit up.”

Why is that more of the same? Because he still assumes the reader needs an editor to decide what is good and what isn’t. So far as I can tell, providing a role for the acquiring editor means continuing to provide for some level of artificial scarcity.

I’m not sure where that goes, even if we ignore the question of how the author gets paid. Is it possible to redefine the role of the editor to not include the publishing step? (There are a lot of ‘lone gun’ editors and story fixers out there, so that might be a start.) And even if we do, shouldn’t there remain some kind of filtering mechanism to make it easier to separate the gold from the dross?

So there needs to be some kind of way for people with tastes similar to yours to recommend or simply rate things. Some way for the reader to easily find that other ten percent of Sturgeon’s Law.

Because the other thing that is abundant is opinions. And short of either a complete collapse of civilization or a crushing dictatorship sending little old ladies to jail for forwarding cat pictures, the economics of abundance will take precendence over the law of the land.

Jun 21 2015

Campfire Stories

Two of my grandkids have been staying with me for the last few days. Friday night I started a fire outside and we looked at the stars when it got dark. (Seeing the moon, Jupiter, and Venus all in the same part of the sky right before sunset was really cool!)

I didn’t have any smores makings, which saddened the kids, but they wanted to tell scary stories. As each took their turns trying to be the scariest I noticed a couple of things about how children tell stories. First, there was a tendency to rely heavily on Deux Ex Machina, Macguffins, and other plot devices. Take, for example, this conversation while my six year old granddaughter was telling a rambling shaggy-dog story:

A____: “And then a dinosaur came up.”

Me: “Wait. Where did the dinosaur come from?” (There had been no dinosaurs in her story up to that point. Not to mention any story reason why a dinosaur should take part in the narrative.)

A____: “The east.”

Next, there is the whole rambling thing. When the above conversation occurred I was already confused about what was happening in the story. Even her older brother was all over the map with his story. I’m guessing this is because both of them were making up their stories as they went along. No plan. No real plot, but plenty of plot bits cribbed from other stories they had heard.

(Plot Bits, the breakfast serial cereal of best-selling writers!)

Finally, lacking an understanding of how to increase story tension through scary moments where the audience’s fear arises from the protagonist not knowing what is going on, they both tried to raise tension by introducing scary things. Which, given the previous problems with plot devices and rambling meant they tended to keep introducing more scary things and/or amplifying the scariness of the scary things already introduced. After some discussion about this we came to the following conclusion:

Resolved (by me & 2 grandkids): the perfect scary campfire story has a zombie cyborg bear with a chainsaw for one paw. It goes ‘rawr, rawr.’

From all of this you might conclude that kids, my grandchildren in particular and maybe children in general, suck as storytellers.

I disagree. Certainly they could improve their storytelling abilities. If they did this every night, I’m sure their stories would get better over time as they told them over and over; keeping the parts that worked and abandoning the parts that didn’t. That’s how we humans get better at anything. It’s why there is that whole ‘one million words‘ thing for aspiring writers.

Yet what those kids were doing was the oldest and purest form of storytelling: sitting around a fire in the dark and trying to frighten each other. An activity as old as humanity and, possibly, one of those foundational traits separating humans from whatever we were before we got all homo sapiened out. (I believe gossip is another such trait and very much related to the first. I sometimes think stories of any stripe, whether about bears or about your neighbors, are the reason we turned language from something useful for describing where the good hunting is into something useful for creating art.)

You see, there are no rules for campfire stories. No acquiring editor is going reject a campfire story because it over-uses a stereotype or lacks dramatic tension or has uneven pacing or the characters aren’t interesting or the first paragraph is proof the writer has no idea what they are doing and there is no reason to read further.

At its core a campfire story is only about three things:

  1. The storyteller
  2. The audience
  3. The context of sitting outside, in the dark, around a flickering campfire with who knows what lurking outside your insignificant circle of light

There is nothing else there. Nothing else that needs to be there. Each campfire story is a moment in time. A moment of being, and then it is gone. The story no longer exists after the storyteller says, “The end.”

No one can ever tell that story again. If you try, you will end up telling a different story. This is because campfire stories are an improvisational art form. Making it up as you go along. Certainly there are some storytellers better at doing this than others, but it is a game anyone can play at any level of proficiency. (Unlike music, where it can take you years to get to the point you can make it up as you go long.)

I’ve often said we are our stories. I mean this on an individual basis; that each of is, to some extent, defined by the stories we tell others. Whether true our not, those stories are how we choose to expose our inner selves to the world.

Campfire stories are different.

For campfire stories the ‘we’ is collective. Campfire stories define everyone who has ever sat there in the dark wondering if maybe, just maybe, there really is a zombie cyborg bear with a chainsaw for one paw waiting out there.

Wait! Listen? Did I just hear a “Rawr, rawr?”

Jun 18 2015

Chapter 8 of ‘Closing the Circuit’

Chapter 8, Remembrance: Sully.

If you aren’t already reading CtC, start with Chapter 1, First steps are the hardest.

Restarting my Clarion West Write-a-thon project for 2015! Please sponsor me.

I’m delivering this chapter one scene a day over the next week. I might miss a day, but I’ll try not to.

Nov 27 2014

It’s Turkey Day and I’m seriously pissed off!

So it’s Turkey Day and I am supposed to be thankful or something. And, yes, I do have things to be thankful for. But I can’t seem to shake the anger I feel over the number of friends and acquaintances who have passed away or become seriously ill over the last year.

Maybe I’ve simply reached ‘that age’ where you start attending more funerals than weddings. I dunno. I just don’t like it. Certainly it engenders a fear of my own mortality, but that isn’t my problem. My problem is the anger. I have nowhere to direct it and I can’t come to terms with it. I’ve lost dear friends this year, but even when it is someone who simply remembers my name and is polite to me it makes my blood boil.

I can’t seem to put it in perspective. I think about the children dying in war zones or at the hands of their own parents and I feel a deep sadness. Yet, whenever there is a personal connection I grit my teeth and want to hit something.

Yes, this is not really all about me. I know that. I’m not so self-absorbed I can’t see the disconnect. Each life lost leaves someone grieving and I’m neither the only one affected nor the one with the most right to be affected. In all truth I shouldn’t be as angry as I am about this.

Yet I am. If I could curb-stomp cancer and take a lead pipe to cerebrovascular insults blood would flow in the streets. I AM SERIOUSLY PISSED!

And I need to get over it. Accept that this is life, death is part of it, and each weighs in the balance no more than the next. The problem is, these are my people. My friends. I don’t have very many of them and I can’t afford to lose a single one.

I don’t know about you, but I am starting my day of thanks with a quiet moment of contemplation for those who cannot join me.

(Also on Ello here.)

Sep 27 2014

Supermoon over Geysir Park, Iceland

Supermoon over Geysir Park

I took this at Geysir Park in Iceland on the last day of the last Supermoon, but one. (Click on picture for full-size.) Here is a video of the same geyser, taken a few minutes later:

True story: I had my phone on shuffle, playing music through the rental car stero. Exactly as I drove through the park gates it started playing Led Zepplin’s ‘Immigrant Song‘. Since I do not believe in shit like that I said loudly (to myself), “I do not believe in shit like this!”

Then I parked and walked down the path towards the geysers. It was very early in the morning and an active geyser blew while I was still quite a ways from it. I zoomed in and took a picture and only afterwards noticed the moon was in the shot, so I zoomed in more and took more pictures. This is the second picture.

I do not believe in shit like that.

Aug 07 2014

My WorldCon Schedule (and some thoughts on the same)

This year the Science Fiction World Convention (the WorldCon) is in London: Loncon 3.

I am on programming again, including a reading I won’t be able to do (because I’ll still be in Iceland) and one last minute addition I will also miss because my plane arrives too late on Thursday. (A good thing, because I had some real concerns about that panel. More on that later.)

I’m excited about going to the convention and hope to see many of you there. (Out of the ten or so people who actually READ this blog, I think there are two or three who will make it. A high percentage, I know.)

What follows is my panel schedule, along with some thoughts about each.

Reading: Jack William Bell

Thursday 14:00 – 14:30, London Suite 1 (ExCeL)

Yes, I’m going to miss this. In fact I’ll be boarding a plane in Iceland right about then, tired from four days of camping and driving around and looking at geysers and stuff. So don’t go unless you want to find a quiet place to take a nap.

I’m not worried about missing this because I was thinking of cancelling it anyway. I mean, I’m currently writing a novel that I know won’t sell so I’m giving it away for free on the Intertubez. Imposter Syndrome much?

The Pleasures of a Good, Long Info-Dump

Friday 1:30 – 2:30, Capital Suite 7+12 (ExCeL) (or 11:00 – 12:00 if it didn’t get rescheduled.)

Arguably, the literature of ideas is not SF but the one emerging from the recent deluge of speculative nonfictional works. If we want to read about interesting ideas on the future of war, we don’t turn to SF with its rather pathetic, microwaved dystopic visions. We’re better off with books like John Mueller’s Capitalism, Democracy and Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery or Max van Crevald’s Art of War. These are extended info dumps, in which the traditional problems of SF – weak characterization, plot centricity etc – have been eliminated. They don’t describe probable, moral or desirable futures, but remain densely speculative in a way most modern SF simply isn’t. Is it time to get rid of fiction from science fiction and focus on what its geeky readers have always enjoyed, the ideas part — the Info dump?

This promises to be a great panel for writers and readers alike. Not because I’m on it, I’m moderating so I won’t be saying much. But because it has some real stellar talent behind the table. You won’t want to miss this.

Music as (Universal) Communication

Sunday 11:00 – 12:00, Capital Suite 5 (ExCeL)

Panellists discuss music and communication. Could it be the basis for a universal language, given its mathematical basis, centrality to most human cultures and psychology and use by many other species? Why first contact might be via music (Close Encounters). Music on space-probes…

I’m going to be the ‘balance weight’ on this one, I’m afraid. I mean, sure, you could use the mathematical underpinnings of music as a communications medium; but such is true of any self-referential numeric series. Considering we humans never use music as a way of communicating facts and figures between ourselves, where is the value in doing so with an alien species?

That said, I do think music has some value as a way of communicating emotions. Feelings. But these emotions and the external triggers for them are dependent on both sides of the conversation having the capability to feel the same things and respond to the same triggers; something I don’t think we can take as a given.

Certainly among humans ‘the responses to music are partly cultural, but I can think of cases where a song in a tradition I had never heard before ‘spoke’ to me. Even other mammals and some avian species seem to respond to music in similar ways. But the emotional baggage music carries so well may not be fungible if you don’t share the appropriate neurological structures.


And now we come to the panel I was added to at the last minute, but am glad I won’t be able to sit on for schedule reasons. I thought long and hard before agreeing and only afterwards realized the timing wouldn’t work. I’m kind of glad really, because this one has the potential of being the kind of clusterfuck the ‘Socialists in Kilts: Revolutionary Scottish SF’ panel at the San Jose WorldCon turned into. I was there for that, and reminisce about it here. Yes, it’s a true story involving China Miéville, Charles Stross, and Eric Raymond.

Hard Right (Thursday 20:00)

Hard science fiction is at its core dependent not on science, but on a world with inviolate rules. These rules can manifest as scientific realities or social constructs, but either way, these kinds of stories are often predicated on solving problems, or not, in the face of tradition. Science fiction critic Paul Kincaid has argued this idea is very similar to the worldview of conservative ideologies. While hard sf is not solely the domain of right wing authors, is there a link between the two? Is that link historical or fundamental?

So, yeah. The only thing I can do on a panel like that is be the counterweight arguing that the premise of the panel is wrong, wrong, WRONG!

Seriously. When asked to be on the panel I sent them the following response and they still wanted me there. WTF?

. . . if you are looking for someone bringing a conservative or even a ‘big L’ Libertarian viewpoint I’m not your guy. If you want someone who understands the point, but disagrees with the idea that Hard SF is fundamentally conservative, then you want me for balance. (Or if you just want someone willing to argue that Heinlein WAS NOT a political conservative; at least not as we use the term today. I can go on about that if you like.)

Politically I’m an independent with views corresponding to what is sometimes referred to as a ‘classic liberal'; in other words I’m pretty close to what ‘libertarian with a small l’ used to mean. (And sometimes still does if you hold your nose against the smell of the Koch’s when you read Reason magazine.) The last few years I have voted Democrat as a protest against the Tea Party and other extreme right groups poisoning the Republican party. I DO NOT vote Libertarian anymore; I’d rather vote for real loony toon characters like Bugs Bunny.

My political heroes are Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison; in other words a mix of democratic ideals and pragmatism in the face of human nature. I’m a firm believer that married gay couples should have closets full of assault rifles, if that is what they want. I believe in the self-organizing power of the free market, but think market capture by giant corporations is the one of the great evils of our times. (Racism being another.) I would like to see all the oligarchs taxed into obscurity and their money used to send people to school and rebuild our crumbling infrastructure. I would argue that anyone living, as I do, in a great country founded by immigrants would be advised to think very hard about the consequences before staunching the flow of talent and aspiration across our borders.

That help you decide?

Older posts «