Monday, June 25, 2007

Shuffle mode

I managed to screw up my back last weekend through overzealous exercise, leading to a couple of days when walking around was excruciatingly painful and merely sitting in front of this keyboard was very uncomfortable indeed. So my renewed burst of regular blogging got conked on the head just as it was getting started. I'm mostly better now, but on Friday I was still concerned enough about not putting extra strain on my back that I cancelled plans for dinner and an outing to Rocketship with Jeff Brady...

...only to have my sister show up unexpectedly with my nephews. They're great kids -- funny, jaded, cheerful, and well-adjusted in all the ways my sister and I certainly never were -- even if they do insist on being far older than they ought to be. I remember seeing each of them the day they were born and now the older one is getting ready to start high school. Surely children must be starting high school at an earlier age these days, that's the only reasonable explanation. I hardly get to see them...but I greeted the visit with mixed emotions, as I'd bailed on those dinner plans specifically to take it easy Friday evening to be sure I was in good shape to attend the MoCCA Art Festival on Saturday. And here I was entertaining two energetic boys and their harried mother instead, trying to think of refreshments and diversions that would make me seem like Cool Uncle instead of Lame Tired Pathetic Uncle. I had what seemed like a brilliant inspiration to take them to Forbidden Planet which is very close to me. Bit of an ulterior motive there, the store has toys and models and video games so surely something would be a hit with them...and I'd get to see what caught their attention and what their sort of kid thinks is cool. But when we got there, my nephews were about as excited as they would have been on a trip to a shoe store. No, I tell a lie: they would have been much more excited by a shoe store. Both kids used to read comics and were at one time very keen on the Spider-Man films as well as anything Harry Potter. My sister had warned me it would be a dud, but I had to see it for myself. These are two completely normal, well-adjusted kids...and completely normal, well-adjusted kids have no interest in anything to do with fantasy or SF or (least interesting of all) comics in any form. There may be some added parental influence there -- my sister has always disapproved of anything to do with SF or comics; her vehemence is very telling indeed, considering that both our parents were avid SF and comics fans -- but my nephews almost certainly don't have any geek friends at school either.

It was a good evening out overall, apart from that one entirely predictable disappointment...but that one bit gave me a vision of my comics writing ambitions leading to a future where at best I'd be writing for an ever shrinking group of sad holdouts, getting on into their fifties and sixties, waxing nostalgic as we wheeze at one another "Remember that one, 52 it was called? Came out every single week! Ah, comics were great in those days, not like today..." And no one else will know what we're talking about. I want someday to write a comic that my counterpart, someone who might be ten or twelve now, would think was cool. But would I even be reading comics at all if I were twelve today? I probably couldn't afford them... I was in a funny state of mind going into MoCCA the next day. Fortunately my mood was considerably lifted by spending time with that paragon of manly ruggedness Timothy Callahan, the shockingly talented and destined for imminent greatness Todd Casey, and the aforementioned pillar of virtue that is Jeff Brady before my back started to ache again and I decided it was time to call it a day. I no longer care if only elderly people will be reading my scribbling, so long as they are fine elderly folks like those people, and the other people I met and chatted with at MoCCA, and of course all the wonderful people reading this blog...

...and at MoCCA was some inkling of what my next big project will most likely be, and if this comes through as planned it will be a corker indeed...

...and with Harriet now deputy leader of the Labour Party, this spares her any need to be locked inside the Cabinet Room with a visiting doctor and his assistant before rising to national prominence. But if I were her, I'd be very careful around Christmastime: that's when people are prone to start asking "Don't you think she looks tired?"

I'm pretty sure I do. So now I'm going to bed.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Eight for a fool

Knowing I'm a willing patsy, Ben Varkentine has tagged me with another meme:

  1. I have to post these rules before I give you the facts.

  2. Each player starts with eight random facts/habits about themselves.

  3. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.

  4. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names. (You’re not the boss of me!)

  5. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

And here are the guaranteed true facts:

1. I was born with severe strabismus. By the time I was four years old I had undergone four separate eye operations, two on each eye. As a result I have never had stereoscopic vision or depth perception.

2. When I was ten, a teacher admitted to my parents that she'd been giving me lower grades in English class than my work deserved because she thought this would motivate me to work harder. This was about a year after I started reading Kurt Vonnegut.

3. I'm the only member of my family who has never been fluent in any other language besides English.

4. My first kiss was in a theater at a late afternoon showing of Monty Python's Life of Brian. I had already seen the film a couple of days earlier, and took this girl I liked to see it after we got out of school that day. We're watching the movie, and suddenly she starts kissing me. My first thought was "I've waited for this my whole life! This is awesome!" My second thought was "But she's gonna miss the scene where the alien spaceship swoops down and grabs Brian!" My third thought was " she'll have to see it again."

5. I worked for a few years as a professional guitar tech -- and once built an entire electric guitar from leftover parts -- despite not actually being able to play guitar. But I could wire pickups, set the action, and correctly intonate a bridge like nobody's business.

6. Twelve years ago I appeared in a television commercial. It was one of those things where they have ordinary people who've tried the product give testimonials to its benefits: "I'm amazed at how well it worked" and "I would recommend this without hesitation" and like that. I got to see the commercial only once, at about 2 AM. My expression on camera looked like a stunned deer staring into the headlights of an oncoming car.

7. I have received fan mail from Michael Chabon. I also once touched the sleeve of his corduroy sports coat: my tendonitis cleared up and has never returned since. I wish I'd asked him to heal my eyes as well.

8. I own two santoku knives, two serrated bread knives, a chef's knife, a cleaver, and three cutting boards. If you live in the New York City area and need a body disposed of, I'm your guy.

Tagging people always seems like such an imposition, so consider yourself free to ignore this if you'd prefer...and anyone else who wants to try this meme should consider themselves retroactively invited. But the rules say I have to name names, so hello Cole, Erich, Fortress Keeper, Gordon, Matt, Rob, Todd, and Walaka!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Half a page of scribbled lines

The meme theme continues with a challenge from plok to create a premise for a new television series about time travel.

The problem with loving time travel stories and reading every one you can find and then trying to think of an original idea is that you keep recognizing what's already been done! Heinlein did that already. John Varley covered that. I had one idea I really liked before realizing Trey Parker beat me to it. (South Park is surprisingly fluent with its time travel episodes.) What I've ended up with instead is a knowing and deliberate homage/rebuttal to one of my all-time favorite stories: "Vintage Season" by C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner. Also a fair bit of influence from stories by William Tenn, namely "Child's Play" and "Errand Boy."

This one is called "Tourists."

Four people arrive at JFK Airport. Nothing about them gives any clue where they're from. They speak flawless unaccented English -- and, it turns out, every other language they encounter, with equal perfection. The first is an incredibly successful artist, hungry for authentic sensation and experience to be transmuted into her future work. The second is a jovial and friendly old man who has retired from his life's work and now indulges his passion for learning. The third is a graduate student in history whose trip was paid for by a wealthy patron. The last is their somewhat stiff-necked tour guide, showing the rest around and pointing out things of interest. His three charges look around gaping, awestruck by the sheer strangeness of their surroundings. They're charmed by how primitive and pastoral this airport and its inhabitants are. So many people! The jumbo jets -- people actually get inside those huge rickety things? How delightful!

They're a tour group from the distant future visiting the present day, here to fully experience the last phase of our culture before...that really bad thing happened and it all fell apart. Centuries later it simply isn't discussed in polite company but everyone knows how awful it was. The hints of it are all around but no one living at the time sees where it's going to lead. It's quite touching and tragic, really, how blithely they dance on the edge of the precipice without ever realizing it's there.

The behavior of the tourists is much like that of the wealthy person visiting the Third World today. They're friendly to the natives and absolutely charmed by our strange primitive customs and quaint way of life...but with a smiling condescension rooted in the assumption they're better and smarter than we are.

As they explore New York City, the group is supposed to stay together...but the student wanders off on her own. She's spent considerable time in the ruins, of course, but actually seeing the place when it isn't submerged under the ocean is amazing. Anyway, a history major certainly knows the rules of chronal disengagement and she hardly needs that supercilious Guide to instruct her on how to behave. She befriends a poor inner city child and asks the little girl to show her around, to see the 21st Century through the eyes of a typical crecheling. As a reward, the student entertains the little girl with a demonstration of some future gadgetry: the pantograft, the attolens, the gravisend -- it's so sweet how the simplest things dazzle them! -- and that's when the others catch up. The flustered Guide gives the student a warning on not contaminating the past with anachronistic displays of technology. They argue over what constitutes harmless fun.

This foreshadows the growing conflict within the tour group. As they travel around the world, the history student gets increasingly involved with our time: seeing how basically innocent and naive we are, and so totally undeserving of...well, you know, what's coming. How can decent people just stand by and watch? The kindly old man is sympathetic, but he also knows sometimes you just have to let things happen as they will. The conceited artist is unsympathetic: she needs to take in more unmediated misery and suffering in its purest form to make truly powerful art. Come on, people, there's a horrible famine going on: you can't honestly expect her to miss that! The Guide is caught in an awkward position: each of his charges represents serious power and wealth, and his impulse is to be subservient and win favor. Any one of these people could wreck his career and ruin his life if they become displeased; he has to act as referee without offending any of them.

The student, who's on our side and wants to help us, is essentially the bad guy here: she's talking about changing history, or at least helping ease the suffering of individuals if they must leave the vast flow of events intact. But how can she know what's acceptable meddling and what's too much?

Structurally I see this as episodic, not a story arc building up to a huge climax a la Heroes or The 4400, but still with continuing threads and character building. The student's desire to get involved develops slowly over a series of episodes, as does her conflict with the artist: the two of them would finally get fed up and have a big actual fight with future technology and gadgets, so ray blasts and force fields and anti-grav circuits ahoy...but it wouldn't really solve anything.

We would never get to see the future the tourists come from, getting our picture of it solely by implication from the things they say. (The budget department is welcome to send me flowers.) Weirdly enough, given the premise of this challenge, we don't ever see time travel take place: the tourists have just arrived as the story opens, and time travel itself is so expensive and power-expending that it isn't done lightly. You set off on your tragical history tour -- ha ha ha, I crack myself up! -- and you had bloody well better be finished when the Guide activates the recall signal that brings the group home.

And finally, we do not see or find out much about the big event that's so terrible in our future. That would erode the premise and destroy whatever mystique it originally had. The tourists will leave before it arrives, no fools they. (Whether or not the student decides to stay, marooning herself to eventually die here, is another matter. Or will she resign herself to the past being inevitable? Will the artist learn empathy? Will the old man find out something shocking about an ancient ancestor? Will they meet other visitors from the future? Are there contemporary people who know about the time travelers and serve as native bearers?) The real point here is to look at our culture and ways through the eyes of visitors who know how it all turns out, and give us the opportunity for poignant or humorous or satirical commentary on our failings...and while we're at it, to show how America and the West in general treats other cultures in our own time.

So whaddya think, sirs and madams?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Just what I needed

The following meme comes from PJ via Ben Varkentine: search for “[your name] needs” on Google and see what comes up.


Richard needs...

...your votes
Some campaign donations wouldn't go amiss either.

Constantly. have life ordered and predictable
It's a coping mechanism because so much of my life has been neither of those things. finish grade school
That's not very nice. give out the coupons to the orchestra
Please stand in an orderly line, woodwinds in front, then brass, then strings, then percussion.

...Elizabeth right now
Last name please! I've known a lot of Elizabeths.

Nick, you know Elizabeth, right? I hope you two get along.

...his red horse

...a Mac
Sure, I'm always looking to upgrade.

...100 new bandanas for his fitness class
They'll conceal my physique and make me look fabulous.

...serious help
Hey! get a better editor
To my editors: this is not true, I love you all.

...the mud people to call a council of seers
I know if we all work together, we can develop this "shower" thing. now, or he’ll slip away
So very true. shower because he has a stink about him
Man...only a stranger will tell you, huh?

...the audience as an outlet in a world where he is alone
Welcome to my whole freaking life!


Having found these, it occurred to me that I might be tampering with meme karma somehow by using my given name rather than the name I blog under. So I tried again:

RAB needs..., says leading psychologist
Yeah, yeah, we got that already. be modified
I've heard that before as well.

Now that's just mean. I do the best I can.
I'm looking for something that will lift AND separate.

...defined procedures and a mission and goals that are clearly stated and understood by all participants
Step one, steal underpants. Step three, profit. What could be clearer? just read the Plain Dealer
Mainly I just use it to cover my head in the rain. understand the power of horcrux to view destroying it as essential to Voldemort's destruction
Surely you're thinking of someone else.

...a car
And a driver's license. calm down
Aren't there pills for that?

...a detox
Okay, maybe the pills weren't such a good idea. learn how to spell
If you keep throwing made-up words like "horcrux" and "gillyweed" at me, naturally there will be the occasional mistake. buy new cymbals
Buy your own damn cymbals. Bad enough I had to lug your old ones around for all those years. be seen in perspective
I'm more worried about my vanishing point...

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Out from under

For the first time in months I have no pending writing jobs or deadlines hanging over my head. Now I can do stuff like, I dunno, watch a DVD instead of...watching a DVD and feeling guilty about it because I should be writing that thing instead. Of course I'll still be writing every night, but without the crushing guilt and shame. Except for the crushing guilt and shame that's with me every waking moment -- but that's another story, doctor.

The biggest thing on my plate this past month was an essay for an upcoming book on the Legion of Super-Heroes being compiled and edited by Tim Callahan, who is both author of Grant Morrison: The Early Years and my close personal friend.

I got an early copy of Tim's book -- the first of a promised three volumes, corresponding to three phases of Morrison's career to date -- at NYCC this year. I've read it all the way through more than once since then...most recently while trying to get in the right frame of mind to write in a similarly analytical manner about old Legion stories from Adventure Comics. Tim strikes a very good balance in writing about comics from a literary perspective without getting mired in lit crit jargon. He hasn't got anything to prove; if you're reading a book about Grant Morrison in the first place, presumably you're already of the opinion that Morrison's comics are worth writing about and stand up to close reading. If you're that sort of person, and I am, this book is well worth a look. The sample pages at the link above as well as this appreciation of Morrison's early "Future Shocks" from 2000 AD will give you a good idea of whether or not the book is for you.

Do not think for a moment that my appreciation of the cultured and urbane Mr. Callahan is in any way influenced by the fact that a piece of my writing is now awaiting his approval. The last thing I would ever want would be for his objective evaluation of my work to be swayed at all by my deep and heartfelt admiration for the brilliance of his critical insights. Fortunately, a man of such high moral and ethical caliber as Mr. Callahan would not allow his head to be turned by mere flattery. Truly a paragon among men, and one whose example we can all but hope to emulate.

Writing at length about the Legion of Super-Heroes was a trip and a half. I was heavily involved with organized Legion fandom back in the day, but that day was a long time ago. Doing the essay was partly an act of personal archaeology. I tried to look at those stories more objectively than I ever did before in a way that I hoped would satisfy the editor (mere words cannot do justice, I am unworthy to offer praise) and maybe even persuade a few readers that those stories were a bit cooler and more innovative than they might seem from a distance of more than forty years. It's probably a safe bet that anyone reading a book of essays about the Legion already thinks that, but who can say for sure?

About a hundred times while writing it, I wished comics scholar supreme Richard Morrissey was still around so that I could check my facts with him and get some historical insight...and then a hundred times I would realize that if he were around I wouldn't have been writing it in the first place, because he was better qualified for the task.

Anyway, that's all done with, and I'll be starting on a new round of pitches and query letters soon. Here's a thought, maybe I'll write some blog posts too...