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Monday, August 31, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

With the current Friday Challenge being about comic books -- one of my comic books, more specifically -- I suppose it's natural for my mind to turn back to writing comic books. Heck, I even went back and read my columns on writing for comics. The thing is, writing comic books has never been very far from my mind, even though it's been 16 years since I wrote comics regularly.

My desire to actually be involved in a comic book project waxes and wanes, just like any desire. But, starting back in 2004, when I first heard the phrase "X-Men crossed with the Dukes of Hazzard" applied to the Southern Knights, I've found my interest growing year by year. The phrase was given by a movie producer who was looking for something that would make the Southern Knights distinctly "Southern" and different from all the other superheroes appearing in movies at the time. While I could understand the producer's point, the reference to the Dukes of Hazzard was appalling to me.

I watched the premiere of the Dukes of Hazzard. I only did that because the uncle of a girl I was interested in had a regular role in the show. I thought I might score some points by watching the show with her. After watching the show, I told her I thought her uncle did as well as he could with the material he'd been given but I doubted the show would last very long. Perhaps this is why most of the shows I really like last no more than one season while the shows I can't stand go on and on and on. Anyway, six weeks later I met Audrey and was no longer worried about scoring points with the other girl. The point of this digression is that I disliked the show Dukes of Hazzard for many reasons, not least because it perpetuated so many Southern stereotypes. I couldn't stand the idea of my creation being turned into Hollywood's idea of Southerners.

The morning after hearing what the producer wanted, I started thinking about how I might be able to modify the Knights to sort of fit what the producer was looking for while presenting a more accurate picture of the South. In about an hour, I came up with a setting, character backgrounds, general ideas for villains and a very distinctive Southern setting. The setting was the western North Carolina mountains during the depression, the heyday of mountain moonshine and the fast cars the mountain boys used to smuggle the 'shine out of the mountains to their customers, clubs and bars in the cities. For many families, the money they made selling moonshine was all that allowed them to make ends meet, so this was serious business to them. That gave unscrupulous lawmen the leverage they needed to line their own pockets with bribes from the moonshiners or club and bar owners, to whom the lawman would give confiscated moonshine.

I had ideas associated with "revenuers" and other villains and wonderful 1930s pulp technology that I won't go into, but the setting would allow the Knights to be outlaws yet still being heroes while casting the lawmen in the role of villains. I thought I had a great setup, meeting the requirements of "X-Men crossed with the Dukes of Hazzard" while avoiding the stereotypes. I forwarded all of my information to the woman who was presenting the Southern Knights to people in Hollywood. She responded that it was "interesting," though the wording of her response left the exact opposite impression. I don't know if the ideas were ever presented to the producer.

But here's the point of that story. The hour or so I spent working up that setting flipped the comic book writer switch in my brain to "On" and then broke the switch. For the last five years, I've been coming up with comic book story ideas for the Southern Knights, cyberpunk comic book ideas, steampunk comic book ideas, pulp adventure comic book ideas and, of course, science fiction comic book ideas. I'd even like to produce a line of picture books for children done in comic book format because I've seen the positive effect comic books can have on reluctant readers.

This is great, because it's always a lot of fun to come up with and develop new ideas.

This is not so great because I can't find any artists to work on the projects with me.

And here we run into the single worst thing about being a comic book writer -- you simply cannot produce a comic book by yourself. I went over this problem in Writing for Comic Books - Part 1 so won't dwell on it here. What I want to explore is whether it's possible for a writer to produce a comic book without an artist.

In the 16 years since I stopped writing comic books, a lot of software has come out for artists. In my experience, the software for artists generally requires some kind of artistic talent to get anything worthwhile out of it. I've kept my eye on Poser, which is specifically designed to make it easier for artists to create and pose human figures. It seems to be the closest thing to what I've been looking for, but I can't afford to drop $250 on software just to see if it's something I might be able to use. Also, figures created with Poser tend to look very similar, based on what I've read in reviews and seen online.

Meanwhile, there are several software packages on the market designed to make creating comic books easier. The software makes the process of laying out a comic book page, applying textures and lettering the story considerably easier than doing all of that by hand. What it doesn't do is make it any easier for someone like me to create artwork.

General conclusion: until computers can pull images out of my mind, I'm going to need an artist.

So, is there any chance I can use what little artist ability I have to create comics? I usually say my abilities as an artist don't extend beyond basic stick figures. Well, there's a quite successful online comic called Order of the Stick that primarily uses stick figure artwork. And I've thought seriously about trying to emulate what Rich Burlew, the artist, has done here. With practice, I probably could reproduce the level of artwork Rich shows in the first strip.

But both the software approach and the stick figure approach leave out a major component of comic books -- everything else the artist draws besides the people. For instance, if I tried to create a stick figure version of the depression era Southern Knights that I described earlier or the story I wrote for the Writing for Comic Books columns, I'd have to handle stuff like buildings, trees, cars and stuff like that. Stick figure trees might be pretty easy and I could probably swing buildings, but anything other than a side-on view of a car is beyond me right now.

Okay, I'll admit I've tossed out a bunch of excuses why I can't do this. I'll even admit that I could probably swing the stick figure approach, possibly even getting cars right, if I started practicing in my not-so-copious spare time. But I sure would like a way to start writing comic books now rather than some undetermined time in the future. And, honestly, while stick figures work fine for the Order of the Stick, it's not really what I want for my comic books. I want more traditional, realistic artwork for my comic books. And for that, I'll need an artist.

I suppose I could always try my newest idea: comic books without pictures! Do you think there's any chance I could fool readers into believing a short story is really a comic book, just without the pictures?

Yeah, me neither.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

And the winner is...

A calm and clear Sunday evening here, after a hectic week and a whirlwind of a weekend. It's the end of Summer already! It hardly seems possible, but the sunsets are coming much too early these days, the evenings are uncomfortably cool, and the geese are flocking up in the cow pasture and getting ready to fly south. #3 Daughter is back in college. The Kid starts high school next week. The weather service issued frost warnings for the north end of the state last night.

I met a retired couple from Virginia yesterday. They've hit the road in their motorhome and are out to see the capitols of all 48 contiguous states, "but as soon as we see snow in the air, we're turning around and heading for home." I suggested that if they really wanted to make it to Montana before that happens, they'd best get a move on.

And so should I.

Snowdog: "Day 25,915 of My Incarceration" is a really terrific start to a story. You really put us inside this guy's head and paint the big picture in a few deft strokes.

The big problem with this one is that I want to know what happens next. This guy has been in prison for 71 years. I simply can't believe that after all that time, the best he can come up with is, "I could improvise a weapon to end it all today." If he was the type to give in to despair and choose to escape by suicide, he would have done so decades earlier. No, this guy is working on some brilliantly, deviously clever plan to escape, and I want to see it in action.

And of course, once he emerges from his time capsule, that's when the real story begins to unfold.

Torainfor: "Life Sentence" did something that your stories have never done for me before, in that it left me—well, to be blunt, uninterested. What you've presented here is the outline for a really strong novella, or maybe even a novel, but I get no sense of being in the story at all, and no sense of the narrator's character.

All the action takes place offstage. Everything that happens is revealed en passant. It's all telling; no showing, and barely even any doing. The other characters are just a list of The Summer Stock Company Players: "old Toby Gruyere," "Mike Jeffries," "John Branton," and "Margarite." Branton especially should be a fascinating and charismatic character, but we don't see any of that. We only know he's charismatic because our unnamed narrator says he's charismatic, and leaves it at that. Even the narrator's children, Bastian and Sophie, are nullities, and since it would seem we are supposed to care for them, that is most unfortunate.

I think you've got some really good ideas here. But this one is all skeleton and no flesh, and needs much more development before it functions even as a rough draft.

Topher: "Methuselah Unbound" is a terrific first chapter. You tell the story very well, and make Gabe an engaging and sympathetic character. Beyond that, though, you've also tapped into one of the great main veins of fantastic fiction. From Washington Irving's "Rip van Winkle" to H. G. Wells' "The Sleeper Wakes" to the great-grandpappy of all "that Buck Rogers stuff," Philip Francis Nowlan's Armageddon 2419 A.D., the story of a man pulled out of his own time and thrown on a one-way trip into the future is one of the great tropes of the genre, and it never seems to get tired.

You've written a really strong start here, but there's clearly more story to be told. If you're so inclined, I think you'd find it worthwhile to explore the question of what happens next.

Al: And so finally, we get to "The Disconnect". I have to admit that this one had a terrific ending that I did not see coming at all. The story is tight, well-written, and has just the right amount of scientificobabble to put the premise over. (Just curious: did you ever read Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio?)

The thing just plain works. I hesitated a bit over rendering judgment—I'd really like to see where "Methuselah unbound," goes—but this one is complete as it stands and delivers the setup and the punch in one graceful sweep of motion. Ergo, Al, "The Disconnect" is this week's winner, so come on down and claim your prize.

And for everyone else who submitted an entry, thought about submitting an entry, or just read the entries: thanks for giving it a try, and remember, the next Friday Challenge is already in progress!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Open Mic Saturday

G'morning all, and welcome to Open Mic Saturday. This is the place to share your news and perhaps do a little bragging. If you're writing a novel: how much progress did you make this week? If you're writing short stories: did you finish anything or submit anything this week? If you've sold or published anything recently, when is it coming out and where can we find it? In short, as a writer, what kind of progress did you make this week?

Or what else is on your mind, that you feel like sharing with the group here?

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 8/28/09

Decent turnout for the 8/21/09 Friday Challenge, "100 Years to Life," including one of those things we really like to see, a new submission from a first-timer. Welcome aboard, Topher! (And the rest of you, go easy on Topher this time, okay?)

Ergo, as of this morning, we have received the following entries,

Snowdog, "Day 25,915 of My Incarceration"

Torainfor, "Life Sentence"

Topher, "Methuselah Unbound"

Al, "The Disconnect"

As always, even if you haven't submitted an entry this week—even if you never submit an entry in any week—you're invited to read, comment on, and vote for your favorite. Don't be shy about leaving feedback on the authors' sites, either. Writers thrive on knowing that someone out there is actually reading their words. The winner will be announced on Sunday.

And now for this week's challenge.

Southern Knights: The Movie
It's the year 2013. After the unquestionably stellar box-office performances of Jonah Hex, Superman: Man of Steel, X-Men Origins: Wolverine 2, The Green Lantern, Batman: Subtitle TBD, X-Men Origins: Magneto, The Hands of Shang-Chi, Deadpool, Spider-Man 4, Thor, Superman: Woman of Kleenex, The First Avenger: Captain America, Batman: The Case of the Near-Fatal Spandex Jock Itch, Silver Surfer, Nick Fury, Ant-Man (Ant-Man? They're making a movie out of frickin' Ant-Man?), and The Avengers, culminating in Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's Oscar-winning Best Supporting Actor performance as Race Bannon in Jonny Quest

Hey. I only made up two of these titles.

—the powers that be in Hollywood have discovered a terrifying truth. They have used up all the known comic book-based properties, and so they begin a frantic search for unknown properties, and this naturally leads them to our mutual friend Henry and The #1 Super-Team of the South, The Southern Knights!
David Shenk - alias Electrode - Atlanta's first and foremost protector. Connie Ronnin - wielder of the psychic sword. Dragon - the last of his race, able to assume the human guise of Mark Dagon. Kristin Austin - petite, but endowed with incredible strength. Together, they are the Southern Knights!
For more background information on the Southern Knights, read the wikipedia article.
[Digression. However, if you have not already read Henry's excellent series, "Writing for Comic Books," you should also find time to squeeze that in.
1. Introduction
2. Nuts & Bolts
3. Starting to Write
4. Writing the Complete Plot
5. Writing the Full Script
6. Self-Publishing
7. Alternative Publishing
8. Writing Comics vs Writing Prose
9. Advertising
10. Publicizing, and Dealing with Success or Failure
11. Villains
12. Setting & Milieu
And now for the next part, I want you to imagine that you are Henry.

Things started off quite promisingly. Their people talked to your people; everyone was way enthusiastic. Preliminary options and non-disclosures and all that stuff got shuffled back and forth and signed, and then you heard those three magic words: "Let's do lunch." Of course, that meant flying out for lunch in Hollywood, so now you're sitting here in Lou on Vine, eating your zucchini tarte and not really tasting it, and trying to keep from screaming as—oh, say, someone like Michael Bay educates you on just what "adaptation" means.

"Yeah yeah," he says, "I really love these characters. But you know, film is a different medium, so we're going to have to make a few—minor, you'll hardly notice them!—changes.

"For example, Kristin here—we'll, I'm seeing Jessica Simpson in the role, so we'll have to make her a little more—well, edgy, y'know? I mean dangerous. I mean sexy. I mean slutty. So if maybe you could get your people to whip out a few rough sketches, change her costume a little, put her in Daisy Dukes and a wet t-shirt, that'd help us a lot."

You gently set your fork down, lift your glass of water, and take a sip, hoping the glass hides your expression of disgust.

"And this supporting guy here, Bryan Daniels: well, I'm not supposed to tell you, but we've got Jeff Foxworthy's people interested. So do you think maybe you could make him funny? I mean, this armor mechasuit thing he wears; could you, like, make it look like it was put together in a junkyard from old Trans Am parts? See, I'm thinking he's like Tony Stark, but a broke-ass redneck Tony Stark."

Your fingers tighten convulsively around the glass, and you set it down before you break it.

"Speaking of redneck, this whole Atlanta thing just doesn't work. Too many people know Atlanta. I dunno, maybe we'll have them take a trip to L.A. or New York or something like that. We can figure it out in the rewrite. But I'm seeing these guys as being based in some down-home backwoods redneck holler, like, say, Hookworm, Mississippi. If we can work that in, I'm sure we can get Brett Favre to do a cameo as an old retired superhero who gives them a pep talk. I'm thinking we'd call him 'The M.V.P.'"

You look again at your zucchini tarte, and wonder if you should send it back and ask for a double-shot of Maalox or just throw up.

"You see," the filmmaker says, as he leans in close and conspiratorial. "The way I envision it, this film is just made to be X-Men meets Dukes of Hazzard."

And that's when you suddenly realize you have a butter knife in your hand and are tensing up to lunge across the table and core his Adam's apple...

Okay, one more role change. You are now P. T. Haack, the idea person in the Hollywood screenwriting team of Haack & Rouen, and you're working on the script treatment for the Southern Knights movie. Your job is write a brief synopsis of the story line that will answer the question: just how badly can Hollywood butcher "improve" this property? And as you mull it over, you can't help but think there's a bonus in it for you if you can dream up a part that will interest Larry the Cable Guy...

As always, we're playing by the loosely enforced Official Rules of the Friday Challenge, and playing for whatever is behind Door #3. The deadline for this contest is midnight Central time, Thursday, 9/3/09.

(And once again, many thanks to Henry, for being a good sport and being gracious enough to let us use his characters for this challenge!)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Day Tripping

In yesterday's discussion of paranoid conspiracy story plots, WaterBoy brought up the 1988 John Carpenter film, "They Live." While I'd long known that the script for this movie was based on the short story, "Eight O'Clock in the Morning," by Ray Nelson (cross-pollinated with another of his stories, "Nada," from the short-lived comic book Alien Encounters, which is something I had not known), I'd never actually taken the time to look up Mr. Nelson. Yesterday, I did.

Today, in lieu of a column, I recommend that you check out Nelson's site at RayNelson.com. In particular, read his handy "Checklist of Fiction Faults". His memoir-slash-short story, "The Last Days of Philip K. Dick," is also worth checking out. And of course, given that the guy is mostly known as a cartoonist, there's always his art gallery.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ultimate Geek Fu


Two peculiar but perhaps related things slithered into the shop recently. To fully understand them, we must travel back to the beginning—

Okay, that would be Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but that's an overshoot, so let's just settle for going back to:

Yes indeedy, a Quinn Martin Production. Quinn Martin himself was an interesting character and worth looking up on Wikipedia when you have some time to waste. First at Desilu and then via his own production company, the man created or produced a remarkable string of iconic television series: The Untouchables, The Fugitive, Twelve O'Clock High, The F.B.I. (In Color! Why does my memory always add that?), The Streets of San Francisco, Cannon, Barnaby Jones...

And in 1967, The Invaders, which ran for two seasons, back in the days when a season in prime time was 24 weekly episodes. This comprises a not inconsiderable body of work.

Still, the series seems largely forgotten now. It's run on the boob tube overlapped with the last two seasons of the original Star Trek, and while ST was busy giving us enlightened multicultural aliens and space hippies and all that, The Invaders delivered pure Cold War paranoia. The eponymous beasties (Aliens? Monsters? You know, we never did get a clear look at them in their true form, and that was one of the things that greatly contributed to the creepy atmosphere) arrived here in classic flying saucers—

—whereupon they immediately set to work strip-mining Philip K. Dick territory and presaging The X-Files. They could assume human form so perfectly that only a medical examination would give them away. They had been coming here for decades, slowly infiltrating their way into positions of power, plotting their takeover. Anyone, anywhere, could be one of them. They had irresistible weapons of the zap gun variety and various other mysterious alien technologies, but their favorite weapon was a little gizmo that, when touched to the victim, induced instant death by what appeared to be a perfectly natural stroke or heart attack. (Much like a Taser.)

They were not invincible. However it was that they assumed human form, they had to recharge periodically or they reverted to their true form, which was instantly fatal to them. They could be shot, bludgeoned, or otherwise killed in most of the conventional ways, but the trick was, when they died, they immediately disintegrated, leaving behind no physical evidence. If they happened to be in physical contact with one of their pieces of technology when they went up, it went poof!, too.

Thus we set up the classic Dickian scenario. Enter David Vincent (played by Roy Thinnes), the one man who quite by accident stumbles onto the whole terrible conspiracy, in the process also discovering the one usually (but not always) reliable other way to spot them short of a medical exam. But given the complete lack of physical evidence and the thoroughness with which they have infiltrated our society, the question remains: is the invasion real? Or is Vincent merely nuts?

Fast-forward twenty-eight years. In 1995 Scott Bakula starred in not the remake, but what we might just as well call The Invaders: The Next Generation. In this made-for-TV mini-series, which apparently was the pilot for a failed new series and which apparently was also cut down to a more tolerable length and sold as a theatrical movie in non-English-language markets, David Vincent is still blundering around the California-Nevada area, spying on the Invaders, taking copious notes, but unable to get either a single piece of physical evidence or a good clear photo.

The Invaders, in the meantime, are equally incompetent at finding Vincent and dealing with him once and for all. They have at least upgraded some of their kit: their spaceship now looks like an outtake from Close Encounters, and they've got an army of obedient shuffling mindless human zombie/slaves, thanks to green LEDs shoved up the victims' noses. But they've given up their zap guns and their jobs in government service; they've gotten so sloppy at trying to pass for human that a ten-year-old could spot them (and conveniently, the film does provide a smart-mouthed ten-year-old, played by eleven-year-old Mario Yedidia, just to illustrate that point...repeatedly); and worst of all, we finally get to see them, clearly, in broad daylight, and whadaya know: they look exactly like a bunch of Hollywood extras in latex monster masks, latex monster hands, and olive-drab Army-surplus jumpsuits.

There's more. There's much more. When I started writing this, I meant to rev up the McCulloch and do a thorough chainsaw job on it. But the thing came into the shop in the form of a boxed set containing two VHS tapes, and about a third of the way into the second tape my own VCR started screaming, "EJECT! EJECT! EJECT!" and I decided to take its advice. So not only do I not know how it ends, I don't find it possible to care. The only thing I felt at all as I watched this was a certain amount of pity for Scott Bakula—not for Bakula's character, but for Bakula himself—as he plods through this mess with an expression that clearly reads, "First I-Man. Then Infiltrator. Now this. What the hell was I thinking?"

However, there is one other point I want to tromp on with hobnail boots, and it is this. In this remaking (reenvisioning, rebooting, rewhatever), the thing that gives the Invaders away is that they're always smoking. After that, they also crave greasy, salty, red-meat foods. And they're always listening to talk radio, because the mindless shuffling human zombie/slaves get their daily marching orders from a ranting, raving, venom-spewing, chain-smoking, nicotine-stained Invader talk show host, played by Richard Belzer. So if you should ever happen to find yourself in, say, a fly-specked roadside diner near Barstow, California, with a bunch of weird-looking people who are smoking like chimneys, drinking coffee black, eating steak and eggs with too much salt, and listening to talk radio, you can pretty much bet your life you're surrounded by a bunch of alien masters and their obedient mindless zombie/slaves.

Wow. This script must have been some Hollywood screenwriter's deepest darkest fear and best wet dream all rolled into one.

Oh, that's right, I said there were two possibly related things that slithered into the shop recently. The other was a copy of UFOs, JFK, and Elvis, by Jeff Richard Belzer, and to be honest, I'm having a hard time getting a handle on this book. The thing is, it's written in the voice of the talk radio host that Belzer plays in The Invaders. Is this supposed to be a send-up of paranoid conspiracy books? Did Ballantine think the series was going to be a hit and contract for a tie-in well in advance, and then find itself stuck with an untethered tie-in? Did Belzer enjoy playing this character so much that he decided to keep the shtick going? Or is he actually serious about all this? It remains a mystery.

Or perhaps... a conspiracy.

Anyway, I've run on far longer than I usually do in these "Ultimate Geek Fu" bits. I usually try to end with a provocative question, but today I'll just ask if anyone else has seen either of the TV epics and has any comments on either of them. Or, barring that, what's your all-time favorite irrational paranoid conspiracy TV show or movie?

Me, I think I'll nominate The President's Analyst.

Let the arguments begin.

ULTIMAGE GEEK FU runs every Wednesday. Have a question that's just bugging the heck out of you about Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Gallactica, Farscape, Firefly, Fringe, Heroes, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Smallville, The X-Files, X-Men, The Man From Atlantis, or pretty much any other SF-flavored media property? Send it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com with the subject line, "Geek Fu," and we'll stuff it in the queue.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

The Federal Trade Commission has decided that the future of journalism falls within its purview and has announced December 1 and 2, 2009, as the dates on which it will begin a series of workshops titled "From Town Criers to Bloggers: How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?" To crib from the press release:
The workshops will consider a wide range of issues, including: the economics of journalism and how those economics are playing out on the Internet and in print; the wide variety of new business and non-profit models for journalism online; factors relevant to the new economic realities for news organizations, such as behavioral and other targeted online advertising, online news aggregators, and bloggers; and the variety of governmental policies – including antitrust, copyright, and tax policy – that have been raised as possible means of finding new ways for journalism to thrive. Witnesses will include journalists and other representatives of news organizations, privacy experts, direct marketers, online advertisers, academics, new media representatives (such as bloggers and local news Web sites), and consumer advocates.
Silly you. And here you thought the First Amendment was the guiding principle. You never realized that it's a consumer protection issue.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

I found an interesting article while waiting for a database upgrade to complete at work. It reports on a study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention concerning video game players. The study claims the average video gamer is 35, overweight, introverted and prone to depression.

There is definitely a temptation to simply respond, "Duh!" But is a stereotype from the '80s really accurate?

The article doesn't go into too much depth about the study, but I was able to dig up more information by Googling it. That was revealing, all by itself. The study was conducted solely in the Seattle-Tacoma area of Washington state with a sample size of 552 adults, aged 19 to 90. Slightly less than half of the participants were found to be video gamers. Fifty-six percent of the gamers were men. The men were found to be overweight more often and the women more prone to depression and overall poorer health. Both sexes were more likely to socialize digitally rather than in person.

I expect most of us know at least one person who fits the profile from the study. Stereotypes come from somewhere, after all. But just how much attention should be paid to this study? Let's consider some things that crossed my mind while reading about the study.

First, 552 people make for a very small sample size. A study that attempts to draw broad conclusions about the population in general would require a much larger sample size before the results are reasonable. I'll admit that some studies can be quite accurate with a sample size of 500 or fewer. In those cases, though, the study is very focused and the sample size represents a reasonable percentage of those affected. An example would be a study concerning a rare disease or people with a specific disease who had received the same treatment. As the number of video game playing adults in the U.S. likely number more than fifty million people, the sample size of this study is far too small to draw reasonable conclusions concerning the wider population.

Even if the sample size were larger, the geographic area is too limited. Whose brilliant idea was it to limit the study to Seattle-Tacoma? That area is one of the high tech centers in the U.S., similar to the Research Triangle area in which I live. I have no idea how many people in Seattle are involved in the IT industry, but most of the people I run into around Raleigh seem to earn a living in IT. By its very nature, IT draws more than its share of introverts who never were particularly good at athletics. And, of course, people who make their living in IT are far more likely to play video games. Heck, video games are probably what drew them into IT in the first place. Seattle-Tacoma also has the highest level of Internet usage of any metropolitan area in the country. So any sampling from Seattle-Tacoma is almost certainly going to skew high for sedentary introverts.

While I can't access the study itself (it's on a subscription-only site), none of the articles define what constitutes a video game player for the study. This is particularly important as the study has to have some way to differentiate between someone who plays a game of solitaire or Mine Sweeper every now and then from the person who plays video games regularly and often. The percentage of video game players in the sample population -- stated at 45% -- is too small to include all people who play games on their computer.

So how much game playing does the CDC consider necessary to call someone a video gamer? One hour per day seems much too low. Two hours per day seems closer but still seems a bit short in my opinion. If I had been the person asked, I'd have said a person would have to spend three or more hours per day playing video games to qualify as a video gamer. But I would guess that fewer than 45% of the population plays video game for three or more hours per day, even in Seattle-Tacoma. So let's go with two or more hours per day.

Think about just how much spare time you have each day. During the week, you spend a lot of time getting ready for work, commuting to an from work and working. Throw in an hour for lunch and you're looking at a minimum of 10 hours per day associated with work. (For those who are stay at home mothers, the numbers are probably higher.) Toss our another hour for dinner and you're up to 11 out of 16 waking hours already used up. That only leaves these people five hours per weekday to get in their video game fix and to do any chores -- shopping, laundry, whatever -- that require their attention. Assuming my guess at the study's definition of a video gamer is correct, the video gamer is almost guaranteed to be sedentary simply because there isn't enough time in the day to meet do what is needed to survive, play video games and get exercise or have a social life.

Finally, the study claims video gamers are more prone to depression than non-video gamers. While the study doesn't claim video games cause depression, the headlines and, most likely, the publicity release for the study will cause the casual reader to come to that conclusion. The study's authors can state, honestly, that they never claimed that video games cause depression. But with so many kids playing video games these days, there's bound to be a nice, big grant available if enough casual readers start worrying about how video games "cause" depression. That certainly seems to be how "science" is done these days.

I could be wrong, but this is the kind of "study" that attracts lots of attention on TV and in the newspapers. It's the kind of "study" that leads to all sorts of ideas, most of them wrong, getting into the minds of the public. Once those ideas take root, future studies that disprove those ideas will be dismissed or ignored because they contradict what "everyone knows."

In the world of science there is real science and there is junk science. The best way to tell the two apart is by the number of news articles you see in the popular press concerning a study. I suspect there is an inverse ratio between the number of articles and the validity of the science. If I'm right about that, this study is junk, not science.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

And the winner is...

There actually is a fairly well-thought-out methodology behind the Friday Challenge, and I suppose one of these days I should write it all up and give you a clue as to what it is. Absent a full explanation, one important aspect of the method is that everyone starts out each week working with the same fry-basket full of semi-random objects, and with the same amount of time to make something interesting of it. This way, at the end of the week, we're at least attempting to compare apples to some other form of tree-grown, pitless, non-citrus fruit.

The Ultimate Snowdogging Competition flies in the face of this concept, though. When you can choose to revisit any of the previous challenges, it becomes very difficult to form meaningful comparative and qualitative assessments. It's not just a matter of apples to oranges; sometimes, it's more like apples to battleships. Maybe that is the reason why I never announced a winner in the First Annual Ultimate Snowdogging Competition, or maybe there was another reason. I really don't remember.

In any case, as we consider the Second Annual Ultimate Snowdogging Competition, I'm really pleased by the range of entries, at the same time as I'm relieved that no one chose to use any of the more problematic challenges. The legendary Snowdog himself gets special kudos for suggesting this idea in the first place, and secondly for going all the way back to the beginning and pulling up Sedna 90377 one more time. Clever answer, my friend, and expressed in wonderfully succinct form. But isn't the Big Crunch supposed to begin on December 21, 2012?

Sedna 90377, by the way, happens to be one of my favorite sparkplugs for ideas. It features into a script treatment I wrote but could never sell, which subsequently became a novel proposal I pitched but could never sell, and ultimately became an on-spec novel I started but never finished. Good grief, though; March 8, 2005? Have I really been doing some variation on The Friday Challenge for that long? And has that novel really been back-burnered for that long? I really must get back to work on it and finish it, one of these days.

Next, as I work up the list in LIFO order: Henry, you gave me the creeps twice with "The Gift." First, when the unnamed narrator flicked the safety off and then stuffed a loaded and cocked handgun down the front of his pants—

Er, doing that often leads to what police pathologists call "explosive castration," and it's a lot more common than you might think. There have been cases—and of course, now that I want to cite one, I can't find one—of men being identified by the DNA evidence obtained from the testicle left at the scene of the crime.

Oh, never mind that. The story is technically slick but emotionally cold. The narrator can heal with a touch—or slaughter six men without a second thought? He and Jane have done this before, to the point where they have the drill all worked out and ready to go. Doesn't he feel something? Weariness, at least? It's pretty clear that he personally is never in any risk; he and Jane are in control the entire time. Doesn't he at least try to find another solution?

This one left me cold. Impressed with your technique, yes, but with something just this side of dislike for the narrator. Why does he go around healing if he also feels such contempt for other's lives? There's something missing here, although I can't quite put my finger on it.

Further discussion, anyone?

Continuing up the list, Al: "The First Rule" is very cute and too clever by half, but fortunately you've made it silly enough that no one could possibly take it seriously, therefore The Agency has decided that no punitive action is required this time. They did, however, ask me to remind you about what happened the last time you got a little too free with classified information. I believe their exact words were: "Nice camera you got there. It would be a shame if something happened to it."

Also, as I've said many times before, it's not a cybernetic implant, it's a mutant power. I'm a little touchy on that point, so try to keep it straight, okay?

Arisia: "The Fatal Cup of Coffee" also gave me a cold chill, but mostly because for some reason it got me thinking of The Twyford V.I.P.. Follow the link; read and shudder; and then tell me if that, coupled in a feedback loop with your foodbot, wouldn't be the most horribly intrusive health promotion system possible.

In general, I liked the story, although I was disappointed by the ending. You started off on an interesting tangent—
All of Martha's friends and relatives were now using foodbots. One by one, they had converted over, some eager for the easier lifestyle, some resisting as long as possible. But all of them got sick. She could see it, but they evidently could not.
—but then swerved off into Twilight Zone ironic twist ending territory. I appreciate the humor of the punchline ending, but it's a let-down. I'd be far more interested in seeing you follow-up on and develop what apparently was your original intent.

Finally, Torainfor: All I can say about "LifeLine" is, Wow.

Okay, I can find a few nitpicks. For example, there's one scene where multiple characters are speaking and you get your attributions confused between Geoff and Ian, and another point where you confuse "sheer" and "shear," and I'm sure if I read it another time I'd find an embarrassing typo or something. But on the whole, this is a really well-imagined, fully developed story. I like the hierarchy: apprentices are even lower in the pecking order than sidekicks, and the sidekicks use it, even if they're morons. I like the opening scene, the development, and the conclusion. Things do get confusing at the end of the bank robbery scene: the business between the time he delivers the woman to the police officer and the time he collides with Crashcart could stand to be expanded and clarified. I also have a quibble with the end of that scene. I've had the experience of grabbing onto a potent electrical source; when that happens, there's no need to grit your teeth and hang on. In fact, you really don't have much choice in the matter, as all your muscles are locked in contractions no amount of will-power can break.

But never mind that. It's a really terrific, well-developed superhero origin story, and you've accomplished the rather remarkable task of coming up with what appears to be a truly original super-power. (On the other hand, Karen asks, "What happens to this guy if he gets near a Planned Parenthood clinic?" So perhaps there's a reason why an ability like this is thus far unused.) Ergo, Torainfor, you are hereby decreed the Winner of the Second Annual Ultimate Snowdogging Competition, and for your convenience we have arranged for you to pick up your crown at any convenient Burger King.

Oh yeah, there's also the matter of a prize. Well, you could either pick something from behind Door #3, or you could—heh heh heh—trust me. Let me know your decision.

And once again, thanks to everyone who participated, and thanks especially to Snowdog, for suggesting the idea and graciously giving this competition its name!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Open Mic Saturday

G'morning all, and welcome to Open Mic Saturday. This is the place to share your news and perhaps do a little bragging. If you're writing a novel: how much progress did you make this week? If you're writing short stories: did you finish anything or submit anything this week?

Not to put anybody on the spot, but Henry, any response from Flash Fiction Online? DaveD, any signs of life out of Analog? Lady Quill, any word yet on how the Web Geeks Guide to Google Chrome is selling? All the rest of you: if you've sold or published anything recently, when is it coming out and where can we find it? In short, as a writer, what kind of progress did you make this week?

Or what else is on your mind, that you feel like sharing with the group here?

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 8/21/09

It's been a hellacious two weeks here in Casa del Calamaro and that's all I want to say about it for public consumption. Somewhat later than planned, the Second Annual Ultimate Snowdogging Competition is now officially closed. The entries in contention for the title are:

Torainfor, "LifeLine"

Arisia, "The Fatal Cup of Coffee"

Al, "First Rule"

Henry, "The Gift"

Snowdog, "Sedna 90377"

A lively discussion of the entries is already in progress here. Winner to be announced on Sunday.

100 Years to Life
This week's challenge comes to us from The Bandit, who writes:
Our justice system can award people sentences upwards of one hundred years. In cases where parole is not an option, this is essentially a life sentence. But what happens if medical advances cause mankind to break the centenarian barrier with health and vigor? Assuming inmates in prison are given access to these life-extending medications or procedures (are they? who will fight to see that criminals' lifespans are doubled or tripled?), a man formerly languishing locked up for his remaining years is suddenly greeted with the prospect of serving out his one hundred and fifty year term for killing three people. What is the mindset of a convict with a century of imprisonment before him but another century of health and vigor to be had after he is released? Will society consider him rehabilitated after a century? Or will the justice system begin issuing sentences commensurate with mankind's new life expectancy? Will they do so only in new cases, or apply the extensions retroactively to prevent killers from being released?

Alternatively, what if an immortal were given a life sentence? How would the penal system justify keeping the man locked up for eternity? Or, if after a millennium, he was given parole, would mankind remember the crimes he had committed?

Sketch out a world where all or any of these occurrences have taken place! The winner will save a book behind Door #3 from life imprisonment in ~brb's garage.
And there's your challenge for this week. As always, we're playing by the casually observed official rules of the Friday Challenge, and the deadline for this one is midnight Central time, Thursday, 8/27/09. The only other thing I would add is that Door #3 is actually a designated location in the K&B Booksellers warehouse. Never store books in the garage: they get all damp and smelly and mildewy out there, and sometimes rodents get into them. I'm not just talking about mice. So far this summer I've trapped and killed a dozen chipmunks in my garage.

Hmm. Chip & Dale Must Die. Is that an Ultimate Geek Fu or a future Friday Challenge...?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Recent Reading

Reviews by Kersley Fitzgerald

Summa Elvetica, by Theodore Beale

For those who know and are worrying; yes, I know what I’m doing here. Well, kinda. But I figure my weight in the literary world is non-existent, so it really doesn’t matter.

When I asked my writers’ group if anyone had a copy of Summa Elvetica to borrow, I got an interesting response. Yes, they’d heard of it. Yes, they knew of several people who had purchased or received the book. And, yes, there was a copy I could borrow.

And no one in the group knew of anyone personally who had read beyond the first few chapters.

I took that as a challenge.

In the Author’s Notes, it reads:

This novel did not proceed according to plan. It was originally conceived as a [sic] epic philosophical trilogy, in which the reader would be immersed in medieval scholastic thought and explore various facets of some of the great philosophical debates that took place both within and without the Catholic Church.

To be honest, this is actually what I expected (no, really!). Instead, we get a nice little story nestled in the framework of a theological conundrum. My only post-high school philosophy class was taught by an incomprehensible German professor with the handwriting of a five-year old and the physique of a Weeble Wobble.* So I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to follow the plot. Turns out, I needed more knowledge of the Catholic Church than the philosophy, which was interwoven more organically into the story than the Latin (really could have used a glossary here).

I think this is the type of book that you can read for the story, or meditate upon for the deeper structure over which the author so painstakingly labored. It’s my understanding that the author relied on Thomas Aquinas’s foundation of thought. Pulling down the family Wikipedia **, I find Thomas placed more emphasis on reason and experience and less on revelation and instinct.

(And here we leave the review of the book and get more into an invitation for philosophical discussion.)

That line of thought—using reason to define reality—both entices me and scares my pants off. We are products of our environment, I suppose, and mine has been…discordant. One half of the family takes their interpretation of the world around them to its most logical conclusion: the doorstep of the local militia. The other side hosts pacifist Quakers. The words of my grandma’s second husband, a retired preacher, float above the fray: “When all else fails, err on the side of compassion.” Which, I think, suited my personality nicely. I can talk and discuss and argue with the best of them, but I leave logically derived absolutes for engineering and (sometimes) balancing my checkbook.


(OK, we’re back.)

In an interview with Marcher Lord Press’s Jeff Gerke (through which I discovered this illustrious site and all you fine Hobbitses), it’s mentioned the author uses short stories to help develop the world of the novel. Two are included in the back of the book. They are cohesive, fast-paced background pieces; don’t skip them.

Jeff Gerke posits that most Christian fiction authors (if not books) are drawn to one of two miens: reaching the lost or edifying believers. Summa Elvetica is the former. In fact, so much emphasis is given to trying to convince the Elves that God exists it makes me wonder if a better title wouldn’t be Summa Dei. I didn’t see too much discussion on the title issue (do Elves have souls?) beyond the first two Appendices where the point is argued and concluded.

Being as unfamiliar with Catholicism and philosophy as I am, I’m sure I missed quite a bit. But Summa Elvetica is a good read. Don’t be afraid of it.

* Not that one’s physique reflects upon either one’s teaching ability or intellectual acumen.

** Not original to me, but to an Eastern Orthodox Bishop who goes by the name of seraphimsigrist on LiveJournal and publishes entertaining posts about photographs, his trips to Moscow, flamenco music, and Don Quixote.

The Vanishing Sculptor, by Donita K. Paul

In the spirit of semi-full disclosure, I should mention I am not an impartial reviewer of anything Donita K. Paul writes. The fact I’m reviewing this book less than two months after its first printing should tell you something. The fact the title page is embossed with a sparkly orange inscription should tell you something else. (Besides the fact that her sparkly purple pen must have been out of ink.) And the fact that I didn’t pay for my copy…?

The Vanishing Sculptor is set in the same world as Paul's Dragon Chronicles series, but on the other side of the world. Whereas the Dragon Chronicles books felt more to me like an “edifying the church” kind of deal (I have described the series as Anne McCaffrey meets Jan Karon), so far, this series is more evangelistic. The Dragon Chronicles dealt with introducing the main character (Kale) to her allegorically-Christian roots; this series follows the introduction of the God-allegory Wulder and the manifestation of His church, Paladin,*** to a new country.

Interesting characters abound including Tipper, a young woman trying desperately to hold her world together despite a missing father and a…confused…mother. And Tipper’s best friend and guardian, Beccaroon, a talking parrot. The wizard Fenworth and his librarian Librettowit promise to be major players in the series, as well.

Insider information: The last scene, an emotional, heart-wrenching encounter, was written in Beccaroon’s POV and not Tipper’s because the author’s daughter refuses to allow her mother’s writing to fall into anything resembling mush. And, due to overwhelming request, the author does promise to attempt an entire conversation between Wizard Fenworth and Tipper’s mother, Lady Peg. Personally, I can’t wait.

Despite the Dragon Chronicles’ spiritual growth bent, the allegory was subtle enough that the books found themselves in the hands of many non-Christians (and, indeed, in the local B&N the books are in the Sci Fi/Fantasy section – not Christian Fiction) who delved more deeply and accepted Christ. It will be interesting to see where this new series goes.

*** Totally didn’t get that until a friend explained it to me. Paladin is not meant to be Jesus, but the strength, guidance, and good will of the church body – both wise and misguided.

Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman

~brb personally chose this book for me to read. It’s a little disconcerting how well he seems to know me.

The book is a confusing mess. Two first-person narrators alternate chapters within the book and alternate between a somewhat shallow plot and flashbacks within each chapter. A third of the way through, the word melancholy came to mind, and stuck. The characters are fairly generic and not overly original. (Can you create a truly original super-hero or villain anymore?)

No matter. It’s beautiful. It’s what Captain Freedom attempts to be and fails. It shows the real, unrelenting, humanity of people empowered—and cursed—by circumstance or genetics with super-human powers. It takes stock characters and opens up their souls to reveal ourselves.

OK. That was probably over the top.

Anyway, I really liked it. Check it out.

(And, I promise, I had not read this book when I wrote my entry for the latest snowdog challenge. If I had read the book first, I probably wouldn’t have attempted the story.)

Kersley Fitzgerald is an unpublished wannabe who hangs around Christian Speculative sites, hoping something will rub off and make her ridiculously successful so her husband can retire from the Air Force and take his dream job as a barista at Starbucks. After receiving a degree in make-a-nickle engineering (which she's never used), she spent four years as an aircraft maintenance officer in the Air Force (which she was horrible at). She now lives in Colorado Springs, home to two out of every three wannabe Christian writers, with her aforementioned husband, her eight-year old Thai son, and The World's Most Neurotic Dog™.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ultimate Geek Fu

Future Clunkers

I'm thinking about cars this morning. Everyone else in Minnesota is thinking about Brett Favre and the Vikings. Personally, I think this Favre business is great news, as the Vikings already play under the big top.

Now that they've signed the Emmett Kelly of the NFL they just need to put a few more gaily colored pennants up on the roof, add a half-time animal-taming act, and then Zygi Wilf's Flying Circus will be complete.

(For what it's worth, I think the most interesting quote of the day yesterday came from a veteran Packers tackle. Asked what he thought of the prospect of playing against his former quarterback in this coming October's Monday Night game, he said, "It'll be just like training camp.

("'Cept he won't be wearing no red shirt this time.")

But all that is yesterday's news. Today, this morning, I'm thinking about cars. Specifically, I'm thinking about the business section news that, thanks to the success of the Clash for Clunkers program, GM is adding shifts and ramping up production to manufacture new cars.

Or as I prefer to think of them, Future Clunkers. For you see, I've owned new GM products before, and given a choice in the matter...

Never mind that. Despite the temptation, I will not write this morning about The Much-Hated Lumina, or the Pontiac Panzerwagen, or the Green Hornet, or the Bluesmobile, or the legendary AquaBeetle (yes, the old air-cooled Volkswagens really did float!), or my beloved and much-missed Cortina, or even the succession of Triumphs I've owned over the years. (As those who've owned them know, the full name of the car company was, "The Triumph of Hope Over Experience.") Instead, I want to talk about Future Clunkers, and specifically this question:
How come, in the sci-fi future, no one ever drives a rusty old P.O.S.? (Naturally excluding "Mad Max"-type post-apocalyptic futures in which everyone drives a pieced-together improvised piece o' junk, of course.)
Okay, I'll concede that unreliable P.O.S. flying cars would quickly become a self-correcting problem. But where are the rest of them?

That, I think, was one of George Lucas's crowning moments of brilliance in the original series, which he failed to remember to use in the second series. Yeah, Luke Skywalker drives a jet-powered hovercraft landspeeder—but it's one with missing body panels and big splotches of bondo. Even in the ancient future, poor back-country farm boys will still drive rusty, dusty, heaps of junk. Cool!

How about you? What's your pick for the coolest personal vehicle you ever ran across in sci-fi? Or alternately, what was the most laughably stupid one you ever saw?

Let the arguments begin.

ULTIMAGE GEEK FU runs every Wednesday. Have a question that's just bugging the heck out of you about Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Gallactica, Farscape, Firefly, Fringe, Heroes, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Smallville, The X-Files, X-Men, The Man From Atlantis, or pretty much any other SF-flavored media property? Send it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com with the subject line, "Geek Fu," and we'll stuff it in the queue.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Breaking News:
Brett Favre Signs with the Minnesota Vikings

History always repeats itself; the first time as tragedy, and the second as farce.

—Karl Marx

Considering that "farve" and "farce" are just a typo apart, I had to bring this one, which was first posted on 5/24/09, back to the top.

As for the results of the 5/15/09 Friday Challenge: after reading and discussing the entries, and reading your comments, and ruminating on it over dinner and through the movie, we've decided to go with Menace Day, as proposed by Snowdog.

Vidad pegs the Surreal-O-Meter, as usual—and yes, we agree with all the commentors who said you could sell a ton of these as t-shirts. Ben-El's Veto Day strikes us as a very good illustration of the truism that an armed society is a polite society, and Henry gets the coveted "Sucking Up Won't Get You Anywhere" award. We waffled for a while between Arisia's "Job's Birthday" and Torainfor's "PAI Day," both of which are quite clever and entertainingly presented, but in the end we had to pick Menace Day, simply because the vision of this card got lodged in our heads and would not leave:

Front cover: "We heard you were a Brett Favre fan."

Inside: "We are so truly, deeply, sorry."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Back when I was in college in the late '70s, a friend, Tom, and I got into a discussion about comic books. It was a discussion that was pretty common back in those days. You see, Tom read DC and I read Marvel.

I told Tom that I had tried reading DC books but just couldn't get into them. All the stories just seemed so silly. As an example, I told him about watching Superman - the Movie, which had just been released a few weeks before. I enjoyed the movie so much I vowed to start reading Action Comics, the official title of the Superman comic book. (This was back in the days when even the most popular characters only appeared in one comic book. Spider-Man was an exception, appearing in two monthly titles; three, if you count the title that reprinted early issues Amazing Spider-Man.) At the time, I worked in a newsstand that carried comic books. The next morning, I picked up the latest issue of Action Comics and started reading.

Lois Lane and Clark Kent were on an airplane flying at 30,000 feet. Suddenly, a Bizarro Superman flew right through the plane, knocking big holes in both sides of the plane. Miraculously, only Lois Lane was sucked out of the airplane. Clark allowed himself to be sucked out, too, and changed into Superman. As Superman appears, we see Lois Lane clinging to the vertical stabilizer and saying, "I'm okay, Superman. Save Clark first!" I stopped reading at that point and put the comic back on the shelf.

Having finished this description of a silly DC story, I hit Tom with my most devastating argument. "Marvel stories are just so much more realistic!"

Rather than respond to the idea that any superhero comic could be realistic, Tom said, "I can get reality for free every day. Why would I want to pay for it in my comic books?"

I looked at Tom for a few seconds. Blinked a couple of times. Opened my mouth to respond. Closed my mouth. Blinked a few more times. Then said, "That's...a good question."

Ever since then, I've adopted those two sentences as my mantra, though I have expanded it to apply to all entertainment rather than just comic books.

When I go to the movies, I don't worry about finding something realistic. I worry about finding something that will help me forget about reality for a couple of hours. So far this year, I've gone to movies such as Inkheart (liked the book better), Coraline (ditto), Watchmen, Monsters vs. Aliens and Star Trek. There are some of you who might say that Watchmen kind of blows my contention and I'll admit it's gritty. But it's also about superheroes, so there's a lot still to be desired if you're looking for realism.

We catch plenty of movies on DVD, too, still mostly sticking with the same formula. Science fiction, fantasy, adventure, light romantic comedies, that sort of thing. We do work in the occasional "realistic" movie this way, but with a Netflix membership it's not really the same as paying for realism. (That's my position and I'm sticking to it.)

I have the same approach when it comes to the fictional books I read. I'm always looking for a book that's fun to read. "Fun" is defined as a book that draws me entirely into the story, that calls to me to read it, that results in a bit of a let down when the story ends. Good space opera will always do this for me, which is why I enjoy Lois McMaster Bujold and Elizabeth Moon so much. David Weber was in this group until his books started getting so detailed they were no longer fun to read.

My desire to avoid paying for reality is also what drives the history books I find interesting. Note that two of the three times I've written about historical issues, it's been ancient history. I find the ancient world so far removed from our own as to almost be a separate reality. Due to the massive changes in technology over the last century, the "separate reality" argument holds for most of human history. (Yeah, I'm probably rationalizing this one just a tad.)

This holds true even in my storytelling, even though I'm getting paid, rather than paying, for the stories. My favorites are called "noodlehead" stories. In these stories, people with no common sense and spaghetti for brains go about the story doing absolutely everything wrong, yet they end up succeeding at the end of the story. Kids love these stories as they're always funny.

I know people who think I'm shallow because I'd rather watch Star Wars than Cider House Rules (or some other critically acclaimed, "realistic" film I have no interest in). Those people say we gain insight into our own lives and plights as a result of watching such movies. But, unlike movies, reality isn't scripted. Unlike movies, real life doesn't reach a point where everything is neatly wrapped up and settled. Unlike movies, the credits don't roll, allowing both the actors and the audience to walk away from the movie. Unlike reality, I rarely find answers to any of life's questions buried in a screenplay or novel.

So, call me shallow for preferring entertainment to someone else's idea of enlightenment. Entertainment gives my brain a vacation from reality and everyday life. Entertainment allows me to gather my strength and deal with my day to day issues.

So, call me shallow if you wish. I'll be watching Star Wars and won't care.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

R.I.P., Les Paul

Breaking news: Les Paul has left the planet. I don't expect anyone else to care, but the things he did made a big dent in my life.

Think I'll have to go home tonight, dig Baby out of its case, tune it up, and see if I still have some chops left.

Vaya con Dios, dude.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ultimate Geek Fu

Summer Reading

...and we're back, live, after a long week and then some up at the cabin. And while I've much more to say about the experience, fortunately Henry has calmed me down, so I won't be saying it for public consumption.

One thing that continues to puzzle me, though, is that every year we seem to pack heavier, even though the actual number of people on the trip decreases as the kids become adults and make plans of their own. I'm certainly not packing any more fishing tackle now; I'm still using the same two rods and reels I was using forty years ago.1 We definitely are packing along more clean clothes now; funny that we never noticed the smell factor when we were kids. We're also hauling in a lot more food these days: while there are still fish to be caught, they're better used as sources of industrial chemicals than as daily provender.

We do pack a lot more books than we used to. There was a time when we hardly thought of vacation reading; there was too much to do. But the appeal of canoeing in a waterproof poncho fades after awhile, and I guess the cumulative weight of too many days spent cooped-up in the cabin, watching the cold rain drizzle down, has finally caught up with us. Karen packed one entire bag of paranormal romances: at 60- to 80K words each, she consumes 'em like popcorn and can blast through one in an afternoon. The Kid packed a few Warhammer 40K novels. Well, at least he's reading. I packed one box to leave at the cabin — mostly P. J. O'Rourke and Patrick McManus, with a few others for good measure — and the four books I expected I might find a chance to read: The Reagan I Knew, by William F. Buckley, Damon Runyon: A Life, by Jimmy Breslin, and two by Heinlein, The Man Who Sold The Moon and Waldo and Magic, Inc..

Overkill? Perhaps. But the memory of the year I was stuck inside the cabin for two days with only a George Carlin book that someone else had left behind is still pungent, and beyond that, there was the year a line of tornadoes swept through the area, knocking out the power and closing the roads, and I was stuck in the cabin for four days with only Ken Follett's Lie Down with Lions, a novel which I truly, deeply, and still to this day passionately hate.2

How about you? What's the best book you ever read while on vacation? What's the worst? And if you were to be stranded in the wilderness, what's the one book you would want to have along with you, if only because you would so enjoy tearing out the pages one by one and using them for tinder?

Let the arguments begin.

1 They still work, so why change? Well, as it is written, "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you can sell him a boat, a motor, a trailer, a trolling motor, a sonar, fifteen rods and reels for all different environmental conditions, a seemingly endless supply of new hooks and lures, and a lifetime subscription to In-Fisherman."

2 Does anyone care to know why, or should I keep it to myself?

ULTIMAGE GEEK FU runs every Wednesday. Have a question that's just bugging the heck out of you about Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Gallactica, Farscape, Firefly, Fringe, Heroes, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Smallville, The X-Files, X-Men, The Man From Atlantis, or pretty much any other SF-flavored media property? Send it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com with the subject line, "Geek Fu," and we'll stuff it in the queue.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Way back when I was a young lad just learning to read, I don't remember running across any science fiction books for early readers. I could find innumerable books featuring trains, including Roundabout Train, a Golden Book my parents grew very tired of, I requested it so often. There were plenty of Dr. Seuss books and stories about cars, planes, dogs, cats and horses, but not a single book about spaceships. This was the early 1960s and space was only just becoming a topic of interest to most people.

As I discussed last week, I had to get my earliest science fiction from Saturday morning TV shows. Those whet my appetite for written science fiction, yet I do not remember finding any science fiction books aimed at my age range all the way through the third grade. I found plenty of other books, of course, including ones about the pony express and sailing ships and even a small number about about knights in shining armor. But no science fiction.

When I was in the fourth grade, my older sister brought home a library book that captured my imagination. The book was about a young high school girl named Meg, her brilliant-but-eccentric younger brother and their search, with the help of three quite odd women, to find their missing father. Anyone who has read and remembers A Wrinkle in Time, will have recognized the book before I mentioned its title. Madeline L'Engle's story of a cosmic battle between light and darkness, featuring travel by tesseracts and stars that gave themselves up battling the darkness, took me to new worlds and new wonders. While it isn't "traditional" science fiction, it is the first science fiction novel I remember reading. I still love it and re-read it every few years.

Having finally found my first science fiction book, it was as if the flood gates opened. Over the next few years I discovered Lester del Rey's Tunnel Through Time, which is responsible for my ongoing love of time travel stories, and his Runaway Robot, which was the first book I read that humanized robots.

I discovered Alexander Key's Rivets and Sprockets, a fun book about the first trip to Mars, and his more subtle books, The Forgotten Door and Escape to Witch Mountain, about alien children with astounding abilities who have gotten trapped on earth.

More science fiction worked its way into the school library, including books I remember reading but whose authors and titles I simply can't recall. One series I do remember featured Danny Dunn, only son of the housekeeper for a famous, absent-minded scientist. Danny's adventures involved a machine that controlled the weather, a computer he and his buddies used to do their homework and even a flight into outer space. I'm afraid Danny Dunn's adventures are too tame for the current generation of kids, but I loved them.

Then, when I was eleven, the kid across the street loaned a book to me. The paperback had a drawing a huge machine being driven by a man while other men ran along beside it. The world around the machine was totally alien. The book was called Farmer in the Sky by somebody named Robert Heinlein. Despite having a title that didn't exactly inspire excitement, once I started reading the book I couldn't put it down. I loved the book so much I bought it from the kid across the street, paying a dollar for a fifty cent book. It was a good investment, though, as I still own that book. I also discovered that this Heinlein guy had written more books!

From Heinlein, it was easy to jump to Isaac Asimov and Poul Anderson and Ray Bradbury and all the other writers science fiction fans read back in those days. While those are the writers who shaped my love of science fiction, this column is about the writers who got me started reading science fiction. Some of those writers are well known, even today, while even I can't remember the names of some of the writers. But I'm grateful to all of them for starting me on this life-long journey, riding the written word into the future.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 8/7/09

Just a reminder that we're in the middle of the Second Annual Ultimate Snowdogging Competition right now, and so there is no new Friday Challenge this week.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ultimate Geek Fu

Note: This week's Ultimate Geek Fu is brought to you by Henry Vogel.

"It was a time when a strong arm and a good sword was all a man needed to carve out a kingdom." Sounds like the first line of a Conan novel, right? I'm sure that was what the original writer, whoever he was, intended. But the line does not come from a sword and sorcery story. It comes from a game review I read in the summer of 1974. The review appeared in a small press fanzine dedicated to wargames. I have no idea what the fanzine was called, but the game was Dungeons & Dragons. I am not overstating the case when I say the review changed my life.

I was 17 when I read that review. In the previous year I had read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I had discovered John Carter and had read all eleven of Burrough's Mars books. The review caught me when I was primed and ready for a life of adventure, even if it was an imaginary life of adventure. And that was what this thing called a "role playing game" promised -- adventure! But it was another two years before I would finally get my chance to play the game.

Small press games such as Dungeons & Dragons (D&D from now on) weren't easy to find in the mid '70s. I didn't live anywhere near a city large enough to support a store that might actually carry such games. It wasn't until January of 1976 that I was able to find a mail order store that had a copy in stock. When the game finally arrived, I dashed up to my college dorm room and started reading the first of the three little books that comprised the game's rules. And ran headlong into a wall of confusion. The rules, you see, were not what you'd call well written. I could figure out some of it, but the one thing I couldn't really figure out was how you actually played the game. Fortunately, a friend who went to a different college learned the game from someone who had learned the game from someone who had learned the game from the designers. (I still maintain that was the only way to actually learn how to play D&D in the early years.)

For me, the summer of 1976 became the Summer of D&D. Not as sexy as the Summer of Love but I didn't have to worry about penicillin shots after it was over, either. To the best of my knowledge, I was the first person to bring D&D onto the Clemson University campus, introducing it to old and new members of the science fiction club. The Fall Semester of D&D was better remembered by parents as the Fall Semester of the Horrible GPR. But, really, how could I go to class when there were orcs to slay, dungeons to explore and maidens to rescue?

No, I didn't use that excuse with my parents.

Thirty-three years have passed since the Summer of D&D. Through out that time, I have continued to play D&D and a whole bunch of other role playing games. Along the way, I have introduced the game to untold numbers of people. In 1979, I finally had a girlfriend who was willing to try playing the game. I married her and we both still enjoy playing role playing games with friends. My best friends are those who join us in our games, which now range from D&D fantasy to pulp action to star-spanning science fiction.

Okay, so I discovered a hobby I still enjoy. That's certainly a good thing but it's hardly life changing. The reason my life has changed is because I discovered that I loved running the games more than I enjoyed playing in them. For those who don't know, role playing games require one person to act as, for want of a better word for it, the god of the game world. Traditionally called a gamemaster, this person creates the game world, creates the adventures and populates the land with people the gamemaster controls. The only parts of the game outside of the gamemaster's control are the players' characters.

For thirty-three years, it has been my pleasure and duty to create stories and tell them to a live audience. But the story I'm telling can turn in a moment, heading off in a totally unexpected direction because of something the players have done.

For thirty-three years, I've gotten immediate feedback for my stories. If I put something illogical in my story, the players catch it every time. I usually have five minutes or less to come up with something that both fits the story and makes something illogical appear logical.

For thirty-three years, I've had to play thousands of different characters within my world, striving to give them each a unique voice and personality.

For thirty-three years, this game has made me hone my abilities as both a storyteller and a writer.

Without D&D, I would not have had the skills or confidence necessary to write comic books. Without D&D, I would not have learned the storyteller's craft. Without D&D, I would have lurked around the old Ranting Room, having neither the skills nor confidence to enter the Friday Challenges. Without D&D, I cannot even imagine what my life would be like today.

So, what are you wait for? There are orcs to slay! Evil masterminds to foil! Galactic empires to topple! And, most importantly, stories to tell! Grab some dice and get cracking!

As Bruce would write, let the arguments begin!

ULTIMAGE GEEK FU runs every Wednesday. Have a question that's just bugging the heck out of you about Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Gallactica, Farscape, Firefly, Fringe, Heroes, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Smallville, The X-Files, X-Men, The Man From Atlantis, or pretty much any other SF-flavored media property? Send it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com with the subject line, "Geek Fu," and we'll stuff it in the queue.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

I remember sitting in my kindergarten class while we all watched a rocket launch on TV. I'll show my age by admitting it was one of the Mercury launches; probably Friendship 7, when John Glenn became the first American astronaut to orbit the earth. I've loved spaceships ever since.

I remember drawing spaceships during art in the first grade, blasting through the blackness of space, riding a column of yellow and red flame, whizzing past planets are incredible speeds.

I remember watching every Saturday morning cartoon that had anything to do with space. There's one, whose title I can't remember, that featured a sleek, swept-winged spaceship that looked a lot like the now-retired SST. It landed on retractable skids and fired some kind of spheres from its nose if forced to defend itself. I can't remember the characters, just that spaceship. From last week's Geek Fu, there's already been a discussion about one of my favorites, Fireball XL-5 -- in Supermarianation! And Space Ghost was another obvious cartoon for me to watch, even if he didn't really need a spaceship. The two kids who "helped" him out had a cool spaceship they and their monkey used to keep up with Space Ghost.

Live action TV didn't have as much science fiction, but there was some. There was Lost in Space, which never really appealed to me. Maybe it was the rather boring looking spaceship that turned me off of the show. I did like Robot, though, and to this day am known to wave my arms about while calling, "Danger! Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!" (I used to do that back in my tech support days. Unfortunately, the customers couldn't see my arms waving. I don't think I scared too many of them but I might have scarred them.) The Wild, Wild West had a fair bit of science fiction in it and, while it didn't have a spaceship it did have the neat little train they used to travel around in. It wasn't until Star Trek that live action TV gave us a spaceship I thought looked cool. After Star Trek, it was many years before TV gave us anything new in the way of spaceships.

I'd like to say that I was able to turn to the movies to find cool spaceships, but that wasn't the case. As man was landing on the moon for the very first time, there weren't that many spaceships showing up on the big screen. There was 2001: A Space Odyssey, of course, and I thought the idea of Pan American running regular space flights was pretty cool. (Pan American, for those who are too young to remember, was one of the larger airlines at the time. They have since gone the way of the dodo.) But the Discovery One spaceship the astronauts took out to Jupiter was designed to look practical, not cool. And while the Planet of the Apes series featured a spaceship or two, they were only onscreen briefly before sinking into the ocean. As the Apollo project was winding down, Silent Running was released. Once again, though, the spaceships were practical and, despite the entire movie being set in space on one of those practical ships, we rarely saw the outside of the ship.

Despite the success Star Trek had in syndication, TV and movie science fiction had retreated from space almost entirely. We had movies such as THX-1138 and Logan's Run. We had A Clockwork Orange and Rollerball. And we still had Planet of the Apes movies. But we didn't have much of anything featuring spaceships. Well, there was Dark Star, one of John Carpenter's many low-budget films, but it had been out for four years before it came to a theater even remotely near me. Even then, the spaceship in Dark Star was hardly cool.

After Star Trek was canceled, it was a truly sad time for spaceship lovers. But all of that was about to change.

In June of 1977, I settled into my seat in one of the largest theaters in Greenville, SC. Every seat facing the 70mm screen was packed. The lights fell, the familiar fanfare sounded and George Lucas answered the dreams of spaceship lovers everywhere. As the text crawl faded away, a spaceship raced across the screen. I can still remember the first thought I had as Princess Leia's ship appears. It was, "What a big, cool spaceship!" And then the theater began to shake as the nose of the Star Destroyer appeared. It just went on and on and on! It was enough to send chills down the spine of a spaceship lover like me! Before the movie was over, we were introduced to all those famous spaceships and every single one of them was cool beyond belief. The screeching TIE fighters, the Y-Wings, the cool X-Wings and, of course, the Millennium Falcon. In the span of two hours, the model makers at Industrial Light and Magic turned the world of science fiction spaceships on its head.

Star Wars brought TV and movie science fiction back into space. Along the way, it made cool spaceships -- plural -- a requirement for any kind of reasonable space opera. Not that everyone understood cool the way the guys at ILM did. Glen Larson didn't do that well with the original Battlestar Galactica, managing to make the Viper fighters look like a poor man's X-Wing and, to my mind, not really hitting the mark with the Battlestars, either. The Cylon manta fighters weren't bad, though. On the other hand, Larson did rather well a year later with Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. I particularly liked the lines of the princess. I mean, the lines of the princess's flagship. It looked menacing even when it wasn't in combat.

Since the late '70s, lots of spaceships have appeared on both the big and small screen. Along the way, some of them have really appealed to me. If you check my desk at work, you'll find five spaceships models. Most are from Star Wars (X-Wing, Y-Wing, Millennium Falcon), there's an original series Enterprise and a beautiful model of Serenity from Firefly. When I find myself getting a bit stressed, looking at the spaceships I love so much helps take my mind off of work. And, for just a few minutes, I'm that five year-old boy again, watching the coolest thing ever -- a spaceship blasting off towards outer space.
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