Arts and Literature

ArtSunday: My Terry Pratchett Problem…the “there” there….

To paraphrase Jimi, there are writers – make that readers – I do not understand…

The Discworld Graphic Novels (The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic) by Terry Pratchett (image courtesy Goodreads)

I admit readily that I am no fan of science fiction and fantasy. I like Tolkien fine, but having read the Rings trilogy in college and The Hobbit my first year out of undergrad school for my first teaching job, I have felt absolutely no urge/desire/itch/yen to read those works again. During that same period of my life I read the Asimov Foundation trilogy, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and Frank Herbert’s Dune, all at the behest of friends whose intelligence and taste I respect deeply. I found them interesting, as I find any well told story interesting, but I was not been inspired to read more by Asimov, Heinlein, or Herbert. See first sentence of paragraph.

Around the time that I read The Hobbit, I stumbled upon Phillip K. Dick (remember, I am not an activist sci-fi reader). I enjoyed Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – yet I have read no other Phillip K. Dick.

Later on younger friends whose intelligence and taste I respect pushed me to wrestle with one of sci-fi’s cousins, cyberpunk. I dutifully read Gibson’s Neuromancer and a story or two by Bruce Sterling. Interesting stuff – but, as you’ve guessed by now, I’ve read no more. Continue reading

Horror

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: a Halloween book review…

It’s Shelley – and  ideas – that scare us…

Since I’ve been skylarking, having left the original 2013 reading list in the dust long ago (except for the Christmas selections) and now having left the extended reading list behind, too, it seemed like a good idea, given that Halloween was approaching, to choose a book that fit the holiday. So I pulled my copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from the book shelf. Couldn’t go wrong with the antecedent of all mad scientist stories as a choice for the spooky holiday, right?

As is the case with some other books on this list (Twain’s Innocents Abroad, the Austen novels Mansfield Park and Emma), I have read Frankenstein before – at least twice that I remember – and I think more times. I read the novel while in undergraduate school just because I wanted to and then read it in graduate school as part of a course on the Romantics. I believe I even taught it once in a freshman intro to lit sort of class – pretty sure I did, in fact. So there’s another time….

So I came to this reading with rather a healthy fund of knowledge about both the book and about its critical interpretations. To paraphrase my beloved Twain, however, I didn’t let my education get in the way of my learning this reading. So, on to the book… Continue reading

Sunset, Dacozy Beach Resort, Moalboal, Philippines

Novel Journey 8: In which the author submits

Sunset, Dacozy Beach Resort, Moalboal, Philippines

Sunset, Dacozy Beach Resort, Moalboal, Philippines

Eventually there comes the moment when any author has to submit what they have written to the jaded palate of agencies. Friends have enjoyed what I’ve written, but one always receives a bit of a free pass from that quarter. Today I started the process of seeking representation. Continue reading

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (TSR)

HobbyWeek: ShadowRun, Rifts, and Dungeons & Dragons – oh my!

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (TSR)

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (TSR)

I started playing role-playing games (RPGs) when I was in 4th or 5th grade. It was the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set pictured here, actually, complete with crappy plastic dice that turned to powder in the sun. I don’t remember where I got it, whether it was a gift from my high school-aged sister (who was playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons [AD&D] at the time) in order to get me to stop watching her game all the time or if I saved up my allowance or what. At this point it hardly matters, because that basic set that I only barely played was a gateway to worlds ranging from classic Tolkien-based fantasy to cyberpunk to space opera.

There was never a large enough group of people in junior high and high school to actually get a game established, and I knew that adding RPGs to the mix would have made me even more of an outcast than I already was. So I didn’t play much from the time I got that basic set until I got to college. Penn State main campus is so large that there is a critical mass of people for just about any hobby you can imagine, including tabletop gaming. And so it came to pass that I started playing RPGs in my freshman year of college. I’ve been playing more or less constantly ever since, through grad school, dating, marriage, a career, and two kids (who are starting to show some interest in tabletop gaming themselves). And at this point most of my closest friends are guys whom I met when I advertised in a Boulder, Colorado game store in 1996 that I was starting a ShadowRun campaign.

Over the course of the last 21 years of gaming I’ve done it all – player, game master, built my own fantasy and cyberpunk worlds, and even homebrewed up a semi-custom system based on the 2nd Edition ShadowRun rules for one of my worlds. I initially created those homebrew rules as way to define some rules for an alternate cyberpunk Earth in which I was (and still am) planning to write SF short stories and novels.

If you asked me whether I liked playing or running the game (game mastering, or GMing for short) more, I’d have to say GMing. There’s something addictive about matching my wits against five to eight very smart people, and it’s an amazing feeling when I can craft some adventure that they enjoy and yet still find challenging. It’s fun to watch a player’s jaw drop when something totally unexpected happens (for my gaming friends who I know are reading this, “He got up”). But I’ve come to really appreciate those moments when my gamers outthink me and throw me such a curveball that I have to toss all my planning out the window as a result. In my group we call that “filing a flight plan” for reasons that will become apparent in a moment.

I GMed a multi-year long campaign in the magic-meets-cyberpunk game ShadowRun. The game was largely set in Seattle after the United States had broken up and Seattle had essentially become a city-state. The party (group of player characters, or PCs) had been hired as bodyguards for a woman who needed to make it to Denver safely several days later. The party got attacked several times by my bad guys and had successfully kept the woman safe, but I had planned a major ambush at the Seattle-Tacoma airport for when the party delivered the woman to her scheduled flight to Denver.

One of the PCs owned a small jet that he kept at a small area airport and I had previously established that he could fly the plane around Seattle without filing a flight plan so long as he wasn’t planning on flying outside the borders of city. I had guessed that they might try to fly the woman from the area airport to Sea-Tac airport and had prepared for that, but after privately discussing how best to get the woman to Denver, they called me back into the room and informed me that they needed to file a flight plan. I reminded them that they didn’t need to file one to fly inside the city of Seattle, and they said “We know – we need to file a flight plan.” And that’s when it hit me that they were going to fly her directly to Denver, bypassing entirely my carefully planned ambush.

I remember looking down at my pile of maps and NPCs and saying something along the lines of “Well, I guess I don’t need these anymore.”

Moments like that are why I love GMing so much. Sure, GMing can be frustrating sometimes. The way I run my games is a major time commitment for me. And given I run multi-year campaigns, decisions I make during character creation have been known to come back and bite me in the ass months or even years later. But those inevitable frustrations are worth it every time the party files a flight plan or they tell me “you suck” because of the green slime I hid in the mine tunnels (underwater where they can’t see it or burn it off, of course).

While GMing games is the most fun for me, even I get burned out and need a break from time to time. When that happens one of the players steps up and offers to run a game and I get to play. At this point I’ve mostly played D&D, but I’ve also played some ShadowRun in college, In Nominae, Champions, Rifts, and a little GURPS cyberpunk. I’ve been a Star Wars cyborg (pre-Episode 1, thankyouverymuch), an angel, a hacker, a Macross Valkyrie pilot, and more wizards, clerics, and monks of different D&D races than I can even count. I’ve also had my character’s gender changed via reincarnation or other magic so many times that it’s become a running gag.

Playing is a lot less time consuming than GMing and it’s easier to do while raising kids. But it also gives me an opportunity to create characters in one world that I can then re-purpose for my own world. For example, I took a female monk I played in one of my friends’ games and imported her into my own D&D world. And sometimes I’ve taken major NPCs I created for a game I was GMing and played a version of them in another. It’s fun to be able to pretend to be something I’m not, or to take some part of my own personality and build a character around it to see just what happens.

Over the years I’ve had lots of hobbies. But only a few have been important enough for me to stick with them through hell and high water. Science fiction is one, collecting and building LEGO (especially Star Wars LEGO) is another. Blogging is a third. But the one that I’ve stuck with the longest, and quite possibly enjoyed the most, is role-playing games.

S&R Honors: The Culture and Iain M. Banks

SRHonors_BanksI don’t remember which of Iain M. Banks’ novels I read first, whether it was Consider Phlebas or Use of Weapons, but it no longer matters. I was hooked on his galactic space opera setting (the “Culture” novels) from the get-go, and I’ve read every Culture novel except his last. When I heard that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, I hoped to read that last novel before he died. For that matter, I hoped to write this post honoring the Banks and his amazing imagination before the cancer claimed him. Alas, he died in early June.

There are a lot of people who look down on space opera as a genre. I’m not one of them. The best space opera plays macrocosm off against microcosm, and the actions of a the few (or the one) have great consequence in the greater universe of the setting. Banks’ Culture novels do this in spades.

There are artificial planets that were left behind for unknown reasons by long extinct races. There are Ringworlds and Dyson spheres, as well as wars so great in magnitude that such massive structures and their trillions of inhabitants are killed. There are digital hells created for the dead, when technology has advanced sufficiently that death has largely become a choice. And there are artificial intelligences that range in size from missiles to “General Services Vehicles” which are usually home to billions of intelligent biological lifeforms.

It’s not that the Culture novels provide technology that is indistinguishable from magic, because they don’t. Banks certainly plays with the laws of physics, but mostly just to make things smaller, stronger, faster, and so on. Nuclear reactors that are so small they can be surgically implanted in a human(oid) body. The ability to alter DNA and transition from male to female to dolphin to plant and back to male humanoid again.

And then there’s agents of “Special Circumstances.” These people essentially do the Culture’s dirty work, do it of their own free will, and do with at least one carefully backed-up copy of their brain pattern stored for safe keeping and re-incarnation if the agent is killed in the line of duty. They are the highly deniable hands, feet, and nanotech that permits the bulk of the Culture to exist largely free of large scale conflict.

While I have enjoyed all of the Culture books I’ve read, one of my favorites is Excession. It takes a philosophical idea – the “Out of Context problem” – and applies it to the Culture itself. How does a post-resource limited, high technology, anarcho-libertarian society survive when faced with something that is clearly from another universe entirely? Will the Culture do any better than the Aztecs did when the Spanish showed up? And if so, how and why?

And if you don’t love the hilariously, if occasionally ominously, named AI spaceships, I recommend you have your sense of humor examined.

Good bye, Iain M. Banks. There appears to be no mindstate backup for you on file….

CATEGORY: Geek-Culture2

You’re not geeky enough for our con

On Friday I was reading SF fansite IO9 when I came across a post by Emily Finke about her experience cosplaying at this year’s Balticon. Very briefly, she kept being told that her Star Trek original series-accurate science officer’s uniform was “too short” and grilled by self-appointed “true geek” gatekeepers, among other infuriating abuses. As a man and someone who is generally not interested in cosplay, I can’t relate to a great deal of what she talks about. I can empathize, but I can’t truly grok it. All I can really say is “Emily – awesome costume, and you shouldn’t have had to put up with all that bullshit.” And to everyone else, go read what she has to say – it’s worth your time.

But there were a few things she wrote that got me thinking about my own limited con experience. Finke wrote about “Mr. Fake Geek Girl Screener.” She wrote about in-group policing being performed by geeks on other geeks. She wrote about men “hitting every hot button of geek gatekeeping they can.” And she wrote that other women, feeling as she did, might “lose all desire to attend *any* cons.”

And that’s when Finke’s words hit me in a way I do grok.

I’ve attended exactly two cons, the first and second Nan Desu Kan in Denver, Colorado. And after the second, I decided that I wasn’t going to attend a third.

See, while I enjoy watching anime and reading manga, I don’t devote a large portion of my life to either. I can talk intelligently about any of the titles I’ve watched and/or read (as well as differences between the anime and manga versions, which I prefer, and why), but I’m not a hard-core fan, at least not compared to someone who truly loves a particular title. I don’t watch so much anime that it consumes all my movie and television time, nor do I read manga so prolifically that I know all the latest titles.

And that’s why I didn’t have good experiences at the first two NDKs. I apparently didn’t meet the True OtakuTM threshold that the other con attendees unconsciously defined, and so I felt that I was being dismissed as a mere hobbyist. And it felt at the time that being a hobbyist was worse than being a “mundane” who wandered into see what all the fuss was about.

I haven’t gone to any cons, gaming or SF or anime, since. I had enough of being condescended to by my peers for being too geeky in high school, thankyouverymuch. And these days I don’t need the hassle of being condescended to for not being geeky enough for the hardcore “True Geek” con gatekeepers.

David Tennant as the 10th Doctor, with the TARDIS

And that bugs me because cons are just the sort of thing I should enjoy. I positively love to geek out over Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Bab 5, the Stargate SG-1 universe (except for SG-Universe, which was very nearly as bad as Star Trek 5), Firefly, and so on. I love to debate the relative merit of space opera novels. It’s a blast to commiserate about the parts of Lord of the Rings that were cut out of the movies that I loved and missed, and the differences between the theatrical releases and the extended versions (which were WAY better). And so on.

But I don’t want to be sneered at because I don’t care to learn Klingon or Elvish, or because I’m only wearing a TARDIS polo when I could have dressed up as the Doctor, or because I’ve made a conscious choice not to get into X-Men because I don’t care to read the decades of back issues (my obsessiveness would demand it).

Perhaps I’m not being fair. Maybe the problems I had during the first two NDKs aren’t integral to anime cons, or to cons in general. Maybe the gatekeeping I experienced was related more to birthing pains than it was to geeks being cliquish and petty. And maybe what I experienced at an anime con isn’t what I would encounter at a gaming or an SF con. To date I haven’t been willing to find out. But given what Finke described (and the far worse harassment described by other women at cons over the last few years), I suspect that the gatekeeping and pettiness I experienced at NDK are relatively universal.

And that really, really sucks.

CATEGORY: WordsDay

WordsDay: Don’t panic, it’s 42…uh, what was the question…?

Douglas Adams (courtesy Wikimedia)

I am no fan of science fiction. When I was in college I had a bandmate who loved the stuff – he pushed Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and Herbert’s Dune on me. I waded though all this stuff diligently (one of my neuroses is that once I begin a book I have to finish it – as best I remember, the only two times I have consciously decided not to do so were with Dickens’ Bleak House– which I completed the second time I took it on – and John Grisham’s The Firm – which I will never complete, because I just don’t like the guy’s writing). I have read William Gibson’s Neuromancer, but I’ve not felt compelled to read anything else by him. Due diligence performed, thank you and good night.

My taste when I’ve read sci-fi voluntarily (a short period in junior high was the peak) has tended towards classic stuff like Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, creaky old literati compared to the bloated, techno-geek omni-volumes of more recent vintage. The two writers I mention when people begin talking about their favorite sci-fi authors, Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, get me, usually, “those guys aren’t real sci-fi writers” looks. I once read a Donald Wandrei story (part of an anthology my mom had and gave me when I was a kid edited by Dashiell Hammett) and at least one book by Phillip K. Dick (you can guess which one based on the brilliant Ridley Scott film created from it). I met the science fiction author Samuel R. Delany when I was in grad school – but when I tried to read his work I found it asininedly over-complex for my taste. I know little or nothing of some of the current lions of the genre such as Neal Stephenson. I’ve put in my time wading through Pynchon and De Lillo – I don’t owe the PostModerns and their gimmicks another moment of my time.

In fact, just to tick off lots of people I know (and some I don’t), I’ll apply that critique of S.R. Delany’s work to pretty much all the science fiction I’ve mentioned above except for those authors I have specifically stated I admire: it’s all too asininedly complex for my taste. Some of it reads (to me) like tech manuals. Where’s the fun in that?

So there’s some guilt in what I’ll be saying next. Bear with me. This is about the next book on my 2013 reading list, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A science fiction work. A work I took on despite my lack of affection for the genre because of – well, because of multiple layers of guilt.

First level of guilt: my sons Josh and Trevor gave me an omnibus edition of the Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide series for my birthday some years ago. How many, you ask? Enough many that Adams was still living when I received the gift. Both boys raved about the books; they’d read the entire series and told me I’d love them despite my protestations of indifference, even dislike, of sci-fi. My son Josh, a writer himself, said, “Dad, you’ll love these books. Douglas Adams’ books are ‘Monty Python does science fiction.’”  (As it turns out, Adams co-wrote a skit for Monty Python and appeared in it, too.)

I smiled and nodded. And a few weeks after my birthday dutifully started the book. Maybe 10-15 pages in, I laid it aside, fully intending to continue. I made no conscious decision not to finish the book as I did with those mentioned above. I just didn’t get back to it. I somehow wandered off to other books.

Probably 15 years worth of books. My bad. There’s the second level of guilt.

So as I was making up the 2013 reading list, that big old volume of Hitchhiker books peered out at me from the bookcase and, in a moment of contrition, I added it to the list.

And now I’ve read it. And I loved it.

The major characters – Arthur Dent, the accidental galactic hitchhiker, Ford Prefect, his friend who turns out to be an alien from a planet near Betelgeuse and who saves Arthur from destruction, Zaphod Beeblebrox, playboy-outaw (and galaxy president), his girlfriend (stolen from Arthur) Trillian – are characters from Monty Python skits. And several of the scenes in the novel – the Vogon poetry fest, the argument over the answer to the question “What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?” (which features a pair of philosophers, Majikthise and Vroomfondel, who do a dead-on riff on Python’s Spanish Inquisition bit), and the meeting with the mice who are the super-intelligent masters of the galaxy (and whose sense of ethics rivals that of Goldman Sachs management) – are more like Python skits than the stuff of sci-fi novels.  And that’s a very good thing for this reader.

But it’s this kind of stuff that makes the novel laugh out loud funny – and the best science fiction I’ve ever read. From the introduction to The Hitchhiker’s Guide (the fake book that gives its name to the real one): “Space…is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space….”

Kurt Vonnegut once described his writing process as writing a joke, then rewriting and rewriting it until he’d got it just right – then writing another joke…and another…and eventually getting a book out of the procedure.

Vonnegut was half-kidding in his explanation of his process, of course. But one gets the sense while reading his work that Douglas Adams saw Vonnegut’s explanation and decided to apply it as diligently as possible to his own writing process – writing joke after joke after joke until he had a book.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is just such a book. A book funny enough to kill you faster than the poetry of Grunthos the Flatulent.

Well, all this writing  has made me hungry. I’ll see you at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

ArtSunday: Are we seeing more character development in genre fiction?

Not long ago a good friend asked me if I’d take a look at this novel he was working on. He felt it was one of the best things he’d written, but was getting no bites from publishers. He was committed to making it work, and he wondered if I had ideas about what might be missing. So I read it.

The novel set out to be a genre piece – sort of a mystery story with a little bit of thriller thrown in at the end – but I could see why nobody wanted it. Truth was, the plot and action didn’t crackle like a successful genre novel, and while it had some very promising characters, none of them were sufficiently developed to stand the book as a “literary” work.

He was caught in the no-man’s land of contemporary publishing, and as our friend Jim Booth has suggested, that’s no place to be in 2012. My observation was that, the perversions of the publishing industry notwithstanding, what this particular novel wanted was to be more literary.

If you don’t follow what I mean by my opposed usage of the terms “genre” and “literary,” here’s the short version. Genre literature encompasses things like murder mysteries, adventure thrillers, horror, science fiction, fantasy, romance, etc. They’re driven by plot, and the characters tend to be static, not really evolving or growing a great deal during the course of the narrative.

Literary fiction is more or less the opposite. It’s all about character development, and in some cases you can read hundreds of pages without anything noteworthy actually happening in the way of plot. And we find ourselves in a place economically where not only are publishers not generally interested in manuscripts that are caught in-between, the culture of writing itself is divvied into opposed camps. I think back to my creative writing program. At the risk of over-simplifying to illustrate the point, the lit types regarded the genre types as little better than $5 whores working the docks while the genre types sneered at the self-indulgent navel gazing of the “serious” writers. The mutual contempt was palpable.

Hopefully not all writing programs are like mine was in this respect, but the general tendency I describe will serve us for this conversation.

What I told my friend, then, is that there wasn’t enough in the way of action to sustain a true genre novel, but if he spent some time fleshing out the characters – especially a couple of the female protagonists – he might have something with significant literary depth to interest potential literary publishers.

He has now conducted a major revision and I’ll be diving into the manuscript right after I finish Christopher Moore’s Bite Me: A Love Story.

I found myself thinking back on the literary/genre discussion recently as I read Mark Todd’s Strange Attractors: A Story About Roswell. This book sets out to be a science fiction tale that, as the title might suggest, reimagines what went down in the New Mexico desert back in 1947. Todd follows an unusual path getting to Roswell, to be sure, and in the process forces us to think more closely than we might like about the implications of certain kinds of biotechnical research being conducted in the here and now. I won’t spoil the twist – instead, I’ll encourage you to read it for yourself. (Be patient – the first part of the book was driving me nuts because I couldn’t get a grip on what had happened, but then the wheels caught, as it were, and from that point on it got more and more interesting.)

In other words, Strange Attractors is a successful genre novel, mining the increasingly untenable terrain of science fiction. Intriguing premise (doubly so, given that it engages with real-world events), solid continuity of scientific plausibility, a narrative strategy that keeps you driving in the direction of revelation, unanticipated twists, etc. (One of the things I didn’t see coming was especially gratifying in that it explicitly violated some of the conventions of genre and forced me to question how formulaic sf can be. Loved that.)

But. I found myself repeatedly noticing, as I read, that much of what was most compelling wasn’t baked into the plot, per se. Yes, the mystery pulls you forward, but you find yourself diving ever deeper into the two main characters: research scientist Morgan Johanssen, who is unwittingly a critical pivot in human history (if you know the language of Chaos and Complexity theories, she is an archetypal strange attractor) and the odd alien ingenue, Gamma Ori. As with my friend’s novel-in-progress, I found myself drawn more to character than is perhaps common for genre lit.

All of which set me to thinking. The truth is that the genre novels I enjoy the most tend to have the most interesting characters. Neal Stephenson comes immediately to mind (not for REAMDE, of course – that’s a roadtrip into the heart of pure thrillerdom), but for the assortment of Waterhouses and Shaftoes (and the Baroque Cycle‘s divine Eliza) in CryptonomiconQuicksilverThe Confusion and The System of the World. Then there’s the cast around which the remarkable Anathem revolves. These novels are unarguably genre – very much plot-centered and not even remotely averse to bursts of intense action – but the characters are far from static. As the books unfold, the characters grow and our understanding of them deepens. Not only that, when you consider the conjoined saga of the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families, which spans centuries, we’re past character development and into the intricate evolution of bloodlines.

William Gibson, my other genre hero, also enjoys getting inside a character’s head (especially if it’s a female protagonist) and he does so in ways that extract all kinds of resonance from the dynamic between personality and material culture (a la Cayce’s phobia of labels, logos, trademarks and other trappings of consumer brands), which is as quirky a hook as you’re likely to encounter in the world of mainstream genre fiction.

Maybe I’m imagining things. Or maybe not. For sure, none of the works I’m talking about here are Salingeresque in their character obsession. And as I admit earlier, the literary/genre divide is abstracted to make a point. I mean, it’s not like nothing exciting happens in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Still, I have hated for years the kinds of sniping I saw in grad school and the ways in which those kinds of ideological rivalries balkanized literature. That the publishing and marketing landscape reinforces this artificial stratification of literature only exacerbates the problem. I mean, I’m not sure that Twain thought of what he was doing in these terms. He probably imagined that a good story and interesting characters sort of naturally went hand in hand.

In any case, don’t take this as an attempt to pronounce anything conclusive about The State of Literature at the Present Time®. Rather, consider it more something that I think I’m noticing and that I like, if in fact it’s really happening. Also, as always, take it as an invitation to comment and enlighten me if I’m missing something.

Nota Bene #124: I'm a Doctor, Not an Engineer

“I don’t believe in this fairy tale of staying together for ever. Ten years with somebody is enough.” Who said it? Continue reading

Puny Krauthammer ambushes a science giant

by Robert S. Becker

Stay ‘til the end – and a rich payoff of Carl Sagan’s gemlike insights. A little clean-up work first, to clear the palate.

I don’t regularly read Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer (CK, as in crank), often regret when I do, ending with gnashing teeth. From time to time, perplexity or hilarity moves me to the dark side, hunting out the loopy logic behind the latest fringe skullduggery. I used to read that wily conservative wordsmith, Peggy Noonan – a far better stylist – until I gagged at her unctuous Vatican sycophancy.

So, I brightened suspiciously at Krauthammer’s seemingly apolitical title, “Are we alone in the universe?” Continue reading

Nota Bene #121: Birds of an Ancient Feather

“Television is an invention whereby you can be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your house.” Who said it? The answer is at the end of this post. Now on to the links! Continue reading

Nota Bene #119: Think! It Ain't Illegal Yet

“My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met.” Who said it? Continue reading

Nota Bene #118: VOTE!

“I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.” Who said it? Continue reading

ArtSunday: Steampunk at Oxford

So yesterday we hopped up to Oxford to see the Steampunk show at the Museum of the History of Science. Both Oxford and Cambridge have such museums, and they’re both a short day trip from London. And to have a show on Steampunk—the first museum show on the subject, we’re assured. How cool is that?

So for the unenlightened, what is Steampunk? It’s a genre of sf (which can be either science fiction, or speculative fiction, although when I use the latter term, people usually look a little confused, so then I have to explain that it’s what a lot of people call science fiction these days, since the term “science fiction” barely encompasses the breadth and depth of the genre any more—but that’s another post). Anyway, Steampunk (or, more properly, the Steampunk revival) got its start with The Difference Engine, in which William Gibson and Bruce Sterling married hardcore sf with a Victorian world. Continue reading

ArtSunday: Amalgam

Here follow many of my favorite painters, illustrators and photographers. This comprehensive list
was lovingly compiled—be sure to click on the images or names to see and learn more. Enjoy! ∞

Continue reading

Predicting the 21st Century: Nostraslammy's ten-year review

Ten years ago, at the turn of the millennium, Nostraslammy took a stab at predicting the 21st Century, with a promise to check back every ten years to see how the prognostications were turning out. Odds are good I won’t be able to do a review every ten years until 2100, but I figure I’m probably good through 2030, at least, barring some unforeseen calamity. And if you’re Nostraslammy, what’s this “unforeseen” thing, anyway?

Let’s see how our 22 articles of foresight are holding up, one at a time.

1: Researchers will develop either a vaccine or a cure for AIDS by 2020. However, it will be expensive enough that the disease will plague the poor long after it has become a non-issue for the rich and middle classes (although this is one case where political leaders might fund free treatment programs). The end of AIDS will trigger a sexual revolution that will compare to or exceed that of the 1960s and 1970s (unless another deadly sexually-transmitted disease evolves, which is certainly a possibility). Continue reading

Nota Bene #97: toDwI'ma' qoS yItIvqu'!

“To be truly free, and truly to appreciate its freedom, a society must be literate.” Continue reading

Democracy & Elitism 2: performance elitism vs privilege elitism, and why the difference matters

Democracy+ElitismPart two in a series.

“Elite” hasn’t always been an epithet. In fact, if we consider what the dictionary has to say about it, it still signifies something potentially worthy. Potentially. For instance:

e·lit·ism or é·lit·ism (-ltzm, -l-) n.
1. The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.le

That definition, while technically accurate enough, could use a bit of untangling, because it embodies the very nature of our problem with elitism in America. In popular use, the term “elite” and its derivatives has been twisted into a pure, distilled lackwit essence of “liberal” – another once-proud word that fell victim to our moneyed false consciousness machine. Continue reading