Author Archive

“Love, Simon” – Why It Sucks

29/03

I have a running joke about my husband Bryan. I don’t ask him what he thought of a movie until about a week after we see it. That way I can get a proper answer. You see, movies are like hand grenades for him: they only explode after time has elapsed. The more he thinks about a movie, the more likely he is to hate it. I think the world record for fastest turnaround with him was Star Trek: Generations, where after the lights came up, he was gushing about how great the movie was. When we were out in the hall he was like “wait a minute.” And by the time we started the car he was saying “WTF was that piece of shit!?”

My opinions about Love, Simon by comparison have gone full circle. I hated the idea of it, then I loved it, now I can acknowledge that it does, in fact, suck.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda I loved the book the movie is allegedly based upon, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agendaso I was cautious going in. (Much the same way I am dreading seeing Ready, Player One in the theaters, knowing that no matter how good the film is it will never live up to my imagination.) I was especially concerned because all the trailers and advertising were making it out to be an epic love story, which the novel is not. In the novel, the romance is really the “B” or “C plot, just the catalyst for the main storylines. I won’t give away any more for those of you who have not read the book. No spoilers here if I can help it.

Seeing the movie, and the fact that they at least made the book’s “A” plot the “B” plot, I felt better. I was especially entranced by Nick Robinson, who I had earlier fallen in crush with watching The Kings of Summer and how he realistically portrayed Simon Spier. So I felt good leaving the theater.

Now, with distance between me and the screen, I can look at the movie with clear eyes and acknowledge it for the shitstorm is actually is.

Inappropriation

Probably the one time each year that the average American thinks (if they do at all) about “cultural appropriation” is around Halloween when the backlash against racist, sexist, and other -ist costumes once again makes itself known. It’s when people who are not part of a culture dress themselves (figuratively or literally) in a stereotype of that culture for amusement’s sake. For a more recent example, consider how the 12.5% of me that is of the O’Donnell Clan feels when they hear “everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.” Hint: it feels worse than the Polish part of my ethnic heritage, which is always afraid that the German part of my heritage is going to invade it again.

Cultural appropriation is wrong. I acknowledge that. The use of “Indian” stereotypes like Chief Wahoo are subversively racist and have no place in today’s culture. And while my alma mater’s team will still always be the Brown Indians I agree that the school was right to change it.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Love Simon is the gay equivalent of if Chief Wahoo and the Washington Redskins had a gangbang with the Frito Bandito and sired a love child who would grow up to be a big buck-toothed squinty eyed “Japanese” character out of a World War II Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Let’s start with, sadly, the book. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is a coming of age, coming (or being forced) out story about a young gay man written by… Becky Albertalli.

That’s right. This story about a gay boy was written by a straight woman.

In and of itself, this is not a big problem. It’s just a symptom of a larger problem. After all, about 90% of all books about gay teens that are on bookshelves are written by women. Another 4% are written or co-written by John Green. That leaves 6% or so of books about gay teens that are actually written by gay men. And 5.8% of those are by David Levithan. In the competitive world of retail bookselling there isn’t much room on the shelves for people like Bill Konigsburg or Mark A. Roeder and nearly no room at all for up and coming authors. Booksellers have to go with what they know will sell and to them YA is written by women for women.

Now let’s go on to Nick Robinson. Nick is straight. Openly straight. Almost flamingly straight. When there are so many young out actors, or those who are on the verge of coming out, the protagonist of what is being billed as the first great teen gay romance is being played by the straightest of straight boys. I don’t know whose decision it was, whether the studio forced the straight boy onto the project or if Greg Berlanti, the openly gay director and creative force behind the film, made the choice himself. But it’s not encouraging to see that gay leading roles still have to be played by straight men who are “brave” for making the choice to play against their orientation. (This is nothing new; I’ve been bitching about this for 20 years ever since straight Eric McCormack beat out gay John Barrowman for the part of the gay leading man on Will and Grace.)

“But there are actual gay boys in the movie,” you’re saying. Yes. There are three. Oh, what the hell.

SPOILER ALERT!

One of them is Joey Pollari, who plays a straight waiter named Lyle. Another is Keiynan Lonsdale, who plays Bram, who in a fake-out the novel did not need, we are led to believe is straight the entire freaking film. And before you ask, the kid who plays Cal the pianist (who has a much larger part in the book and is acknowledged as gay therein) isn’t number three; Miles Meizer is straight.

Number three is Clark Moore.

Oh, Clark.

Stepin Faggot

Clark Moore plays Ethan, who is the movie’s homophobic comic relief. He swishes and sways, wears his hair long, and is played like someone plucked off the runway of RuPaul’s Drag Race (“Category is: realness!”) and dropped in a high school. He is played as every bad mincing stereotype for maximum comedy, and no main character (not even newly outed Simon) treats him nicely or even as a human being. The script and direction surely don’t. He’s there to make straight people laugh at him, a Stepin Faggot character of the worst kind.

There is literally no reason to have Ethan in the movie. Other characters with more actual impact (like Simon’s older sister) who were in the book were cut out of the film, so why keep Ethan who has no impact at all on the plot?

Just to show everything “gay” that Simon is not.

Ethan is there to show what people expect gays to be: effeminate, swishy, just south of cross dressing. Simon is none of those, so Simon is the acceptable gay. Especially because he’s played by a straight boy.

Clark Moore and Nick Robinson are very talented actors who deserved better than to be stuck in these sad stereotypes of femme and butch queer kids.

The film loves to ask “why is straight the default” so much that they sell freakin’ T-shirts with that slogan. Here’s the answer: it’s the default because Hollywood insists on casting straight actors for gay roles.

But that’s okay, because we queers aren’t the film’s target audience. Straight girls are.

YOW-eeeeeee!

For those of you who have not been around manga-obsessed teen girls in recent years, “YAOI” is a form of manga about boys in love with each other. The term comes from a Japanese acronym for “no climax, no plot, no meaning.” It’s just slightly androgynous boys getting it on with each other to make straight teenager girls aroused. It’s written by women for girls and the men are just objects of the audience’s lust.

Love, Simon, is American cinematic YAOI.

Written by women (novel – which is not YAOI but has a compelling plot – by Becky Albertalli, screenplay co-written by Elizabeth Berger) for teen girls.

Simon is portrayed throughout the film as ideal boyfriend material, played by a masculine actor who is not unpleasant to look at, to provide a sex symbol for teen girls to desire. And when he kisses another hot boy at the end? Boom.

For Hollywood, this is not a bad thing. Teen girls first showed their power by keeping Titanic afloat for so long, seeing the film and its love story multiple times.

(For the record, I almost linked to the theory that Jack from Titanic is actually a cross-dressing woman here, but when I went googling for a link I got scared; never search for “Titanic Transsexual” if you know what’s good for you.)

But I digress. Teen girls in cinema.

According to MPAA numbers for 2014 (most recent I could find online), more women than men buy movie tickets, and 40% of all tickets are bought by people 24 and under. So if you can win over a big bunch of teenage girls and get them to see your movie multiple times it’s a formula for success.

Yes, it’s nice that gay teens have representation on the screen. It’s nice that a gay teen love story did so well. And it’s wonderful that it’s inspiring gay teens to come out to their parents.

But kids? Make no mistake. You are the side effect. This is not your movie. You were not the intended audience. And this is not going to blaze a trail for real gay cinema. This is just another teen girl-targeted romance. This is this year’s Everything, Everything or The Fault in our Stars as far as Hollywood is concerned.

Conclusion

Is it worth seeing? I guess. I don’t regret seeing it. I may watch it again when it comes to Netflix. But so much about this movie leaves a bad taste in my mouth. (No gay pun intended.) It reinforces the “acceptable gay” trope. It continues the tradition that only straight boys can play leading roles (or, even, gay roles!). And it’s appropriation by straight women of gay youth culture and stories by straight women to appeal to straight teen girls.

All of which I would have thought Hollywood would be long past by now.

 

Yet Another Book Building Application

27/03

I love Cory Doctorow’s writing. I’ve read most of his novels multiple times. But there is one area where he has caused me great tsuris over the years.

Cory has a new book out called Walkaway. I plan to pick it up soon. But you see, between my fading eyesight and the fact that I spend a lot of time in my car, I prefer to get my literature in audiobook form when possible. Most of the time, that means going through Audible, who are the 8,000 pound gorilla in the audiobook business online.

Cory doesn’t make his books available through Audible because of their “digital rights management” policies. I happen to agree with him (although as a much less popular author than he I have to deal with them). So he makes the audiobooks of most of his works available through his website, and I have bought directly from him in the past with relative ease.

But his audiobooks come in what is an inconvenient format for me: a series of individual .mp3 files breaking the book down chapter by chapter or, in two cases, CD by CD. As a guy who has built a huge folder of audiobooks over the years and still prefers to listen to them on his old iPod Classic, this is not how I prefer my books. I would rather have the single huge file that Audible offers, or that you can get by building an .M4B file for iTunes.

In previous years, this would have meant using a program called Chapter and Verse, which would take those individual files and spit out an M4B. But Chapter and Verse hasn’t been updated in years, doesn’t work with modern versions of iTunes (which it needs to convert files), and is stuck in the mindset of the old days of 32 bit systems and thus doesn’t like creating audiobooks over 8 hours when it will create anything at all.

Of course, you know me. I come from the old school where the answer to not having software that does what you want is to write it yourself. So here is a quick and dirty, yet fully functional program, for all of you.

Yet Another Book Building Application

YABBA is a front-end for two other programs, FFMpeg and AtomicParsley, which respectively convert and add metadata to your audiobook files. You select and add files to your project, rearrange them if necessary, and can retitle the individual chapters. You can add cover art and information for author, title, year of publication, and description. Then just press one button, wait a considerable amount of time (how long depends on length of the book and speed of your computer) and out will pop a fresh baked audiobook. Add it into iTunes and you are ready to go.

I wrote the program to be as intuitive and simple to use as possible. Just feed it a bunch of MP3’s and some other information and let it do its work.

I wrote this program over four days when I had nothing much better to do simply because I needed it, and am happy to share it with any and all who want it. Use and copy it all you want, just don’t charge anything for it. If you find it useful, kick back a donation through the button at the top of the page.

Download Yet Another Book Building Application: Windows 32-bit Installer, Windows 64-bit Installer, Lazarus Source Code

If you found this post by kibozing for Cory’s name, you might also want to check out “…Only to Find Gideon’s Bible,” my short story set in the universe of Cory’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. And if you read this, Cory? I’d love to record an “official” audiobook for DAOITMK; you can donate whatever fee you would normally pay a narrator to EFF if I do.

 

The Greatest Bit SNL Ever Did.

02/06

I’m working on a Youtube series that will debut at the end of June 2017 called Thirteen Week Theatre about short lived TV shows, both the underappreciated gems and the absolute horrible bits of tripe.

One show I’m working for it is Saturday Night Live ‘80, the retitled, revamped version of the classic show that debuted in November of that fateful year. It took me a while to track down copies of the 12 episodes that killed Jean Doumanian’s TV career (along with those of people like Ann Risley and Charles Rocket), but I found them so I could watch them again and get some footage to work with.

At the time I was foraging for VHS copies of those 12 wpisodes I decided to seek out another little-remembered SNL season: Season 7, the first full season for Dick Ebersol and which would prove to be the second year in a row that half the cast was fired by the end of the season.

I did it mainly to seek out one particular bit: one that can’t be found online because NBC rightly polices the hell out of YouTube and because Lorne won’t allow them to have much if anything from Ebersol’s reign on Hulu or the web. A bit that I had only seen once almost 36 years ago and had stuck with me until I tracked it down tonight.

In my opinion, it’s an example of what made SNL great. Probably the greatest bit they ever did.

The official title was “An Editorial Reply,” about the week when Life and Time both had Marilyn Monroe on their covers and some telefilms were in production about her life. In reality, it’s probably known better for the refrain of the musical number. Mary Gross played Marilyn in a wonderful parody of the quintessential number from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

“If Life Magazine needs my face to sell issues, then downers are a girl’s best friend.”

I can’t confirm that it was written by Michael O’Donohugh, but if it wasn’t I’ll eat my hat and worship at the feet of whoever did write it.

This bit shows the genius that SNL had in its early years. It was edgy bordering on offensive. (The “downers” that are being sung about are supposedly books about her, but it’s also an obvious swipe at how Marilyn killed herself.) It didn’t talk down to you. It presumed that you knew the original source material that was being parodied. It presumed you knew about Marilyn, who she loved and how she died.”

“Capote! Miller! Garson Kanen! Talk to me, Norman Mailer! Tell me all about me!”

It’s brash. It’s bold. It’s 3 and a half minutes that are right on target.

“If made-for-TV films ’bout me must be written
Downers are a girl’s best friend.
And writers who write on the… men I was smitten
with… make so much dough
and write as though they really know!

“Dunaway would run away
to play me, though she’d need my rear end!
This isn’t defensive!
To me, it’s offensive!
Downers are a girl’s best friend.”

And you know what? It’s witty and funny as hell, but for those three and a half minutes there is not a single laugh to be heard. Maybe a couple of gasps when the word “downers” is first used, but no laughs.

Yet the audience goes nuts at the end. They didn’t need to laugh out loud. The wit was enough.

No need to pull a “Debbie Downer” and try to deliver a punch line every 20 seconds. No hammering away at a catchphrase. No condescension. The sketch refuses to play to the lowest common denominator. Who cares. It isn’t too hip for the room; if it goes over your head go laugh at the “Rubik’s Teeth” commercial elsewhere in the episode. But the more you know the funnier it is. And the wittier. And the sadder.

It’s the perfect example of what SNL was supposed to be. It’s just how Lorne Michaels envisioned the show.

As Lorne prepares for his annual bloodletting, firing stars who are underperforming in an effort to keep the show under budget, and trying to once again reinvent the show without reinventing it like they did in 1980 (and 1981, and 1984, and 1985, and 1990, and 1995, and… Well, I could go on) he would do best to go back and watch some of the Ebersol years. They were uneven, they relied too much on one or two cast members per season, but they did have times when they had pure genius.

Remember that the greatest sketch SNL ever did, the quintessential “edgy” yet “highbrow” moment, the sketch that best illustrated what you wanted from the show, happened while you weren’t there.

“The Catcher in the Rye” – Why It Sucks

26/09

NOTE: This is a repost of an essay that appeared on my old “PaBlog” back in May of 2008, and was my most commented upon posting ever. My opinions have not changed in the intervening six years.

After re-reading portions of Rumpled Trenchcoats and Rubber Bullets while preparing this latest round of queries, I felt the need to revisit one of the most famous novels of modern time, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye. I didn’t like it when I read it before, but I decided to keep an open mind as I read it for the second time.

catcher-194x300I still don’t like it.

There are those who will say that Catcher is a classic. I will not dispute that. However, Childe Harold is also a classic. Lord Randal is a classic. Everyman is a classic. That does not mean that they are good. What they are, which is what makes them classics, is that they reflect the time in which they were written, took revolutionary (or, in some cases, evolutionary) jumps in style or form, and greatly influenced works that came after them. None of them, however, stand up well against the passage of time.

Sadly, a lot of what makes Catcher unbearable are the things that made it revolutionary and innovative 57 years ago:

Holden, the antihero: Antiheroes as protagonists were not as common prior to Catcher as they have been since. Holden is not heroic. He isn’t even likable. He’s annoying, petty, depressing (appropriately enough, as he’s depressed), and borders on stupid. It was the presence of such a well-crafted character with no redeeming characteristics that swept through the literary (and popular culture) world like a sirocco wind blowing in warm, fresh air. Today, however, this type of character has been done to death. Salinger didn’t invent the antihero (that honor goes to Apollonius of Rhodes), he perfected it. Doing so, however, invited an onslaught of imitators who through their copying diminished the original.

The prose style: Let’s face it, Catcher really is the quintessential first-person narrative in the style of an extended dramatic monologue. Salinger really is unparalleled as a writer when it comes to an ear for dialect and creating a believable voice for a character, except perhaps for Mark Twain. However, the narration of Catcher, like that of his rival for the dialogue crown in Huckleberry Finn, does not age well. It is too grounded in the 1940′s and early 50′s. Popular slang has drifted over the past half century, and those not familiar with a lot of the terms used by Holden will get lost easily. Also, Holden tends to ramble. This is understandable when you consider his other character traits, but Holden is not someone you go to for clear, concise, narration.

That fucking ending: I hate it when stories don’t end, but just stop. Catcher is the worst offender in this case. True, there’s the epilogue, but there’s so much time that’s passed between the carousel scene and the epilogue that one can’t help but feel cheated. There’s a lot of story chopped out of there, which I would like to see. What happened when Holden finally revealed himself to his parents? Why is he in California? Is he institutionalized? Is he insane? If Salinger had left out the last chapter, it would have been a better ending, but it’s still too abrupt, and doesn’t tie up any of the story. The epilogue, to me, reads like something an editor forced the author to write to answer some questions he or she still had.

Books in the 1940′s had happy endings, or they had sad endings. Catcher has no ending, which was innovative back then, but today is just grating.

The plot: Or, should I say, the lack of one. Catcher seems to be following the Campbellian model at first, but its hero never leaves the Underworld, is never transformed, and never returns with a boon for mankind. Holden has no goal, no desires, essentially no character arc. His misadventures in Manhattan do not destroy the boy that was to make room for the man that will be, they just bump him around and kick him when he is down. Holden never learns from his mistakes. He doesn’t even acknowledge that they are mistakes. The Holden we have at the end of the last sentence is the same exact boy we meet at the beginning of the first sentence. I liken this to watching a man continually getting shat upon by a large bird, who keeps wiping the offal from his face, but never thinks to change his seat or chase the bird away. This may be funny to sadists, or Tom Green fans, but it is not enjoyable for me.

And this brings me to my biggest gripe:

Holden does nothing.

Holden spends the entire length of the story walking around, with no needs and no desires. Maybe Salinger was drawing inspiration from the Lost Generation that followed World War I, and anticipating the self-absorbed Baby Boomers that were being born as he was writing the story, but surely that’s no excuse for telling us a story that is no story.

Take a look at some of the characters from more modern works that owe their existence to Holden. Tom Henderson from King Dork has goals: get to know some mystery girl, get to understand his dead father, and make it through high school. Dennis Cooverman from I Love You, Beth Cooper may be carried along by the unyielding stream of circumstance, but at least he stands up and takes matters in his own hands from time to time. DeeDee Truitt from The Opposite Of Sex wants to scam a family member. The refusenik kids of Like We Care actively rebel against popular culture by not buying anything. Holden walks around muttering to himself. The kid can’t even get laid by a prostitute for pete’s sake. Honestly, if Holden had mentioned thinking about calling Jane Gallagher one more time, I would have screamed “JUST PICK UP A PAY PHONE AND CALL HER, YOU DICK! DO SOMETHING!”

If you are reading this, Mr. Salinger, please take it in the manner I intend: loving criticism. You are perhaps the greatest living writer, much more talented than I could ever hope to be. You have a unique talent with words. There’s a reason thatFranny And Zooey was on the little bookshelf in the headboard of my bed all through my high school years. But what is commonly believed to be your greatest work just doesn’t push my buttons. It’s not aged well. In the end, what was innovative in the 1950′s is now old hat; it suffers from the curse of “it’s all been done before.” It’s the novel equivalent of reading an e.e. cummings poem: it was groundbreaking when it came out, but today you just want to smack the guy and show him where the SHIFT key is on the typewriter.

Doctor Who: ENOUGH ALREADY!

23/11

SPOILERS for Doctor Who: “Face the Raven” and others.

Doctor Who said goodbye to another companion last week, and while many of us cheered the long overdue departure of Jenna Coleman’s Clara, the means by which she left the show continued one of the revived show’s more annoying trends: burning the companion’s bridges before dispatching them with a needlessly sad departure.

a0d8ed26a967e1beb388d240e4f46fb1b26f7c7d_hqIn the 26 years of the original series, only two companions were killed off: Katarina (who was written in specifically to die in the next adventure) and Adric (who was generally hated as a character and mourned by few). One companion (Peri) was killed off but then retconned a few episodes later to have survived. Of course, she was revealed to have gone on to marry Brian Blessed instead, so maybe death would have been preferable.

So out of 28 companions of the first seven Doctors, we have a mortality rate of 7%. Not the safest job in the Universe, surely.

If we add in companions who left the Doctor on bad terms, at best we add four more. Jamie and Zoe had their memories wiped and were sent back to their own times in The War Games. Sarah Jane Smith was abandoned in the wrong town (in the wrong country, too) with little warning by the Fourth Doctor in The Hand of Fear. And Tegan pulled a Tegan and went storming off before trying unsuccessfully to change her mind in Resurrection of the Daleks. So six out of 28, or 21%, could be described as not having a happy ending.

021Fast forward to the new series.

Rose? Stranded in another Universe with a fake Doctor.

Captain Jack? Dead, eventually, although we didn’t know it at the time. But his situation is unique so I won’t count him in these figures.

Donna? Memory wiped.

Amy and Rory? Stranded back in the past with no hope of return. And let’s not even try to count the number of times Rory “died” before that.

River? Dead.

Clara? Dead.

clara-goodbye-doctor-who-face-the-ravenOf the new series’ companions, only one could be seen as having anything other than a miserable end to her travels: Martha. And that was only because they contrived to sign her up with Torchwood and have her patch things up with the Doctor after her misery. If you count Mickey as a companion (I really don’t) you could add him as one who had a neutral ending. (But he ended up with Martha, so this could be a Peri-like situation).

death4So a possible two out of eight. That’s a 75% chance of things ending badly. And if you add Danny in as a companion (like with Mickey, I really don’t) then the mortality/misery rate jumps to 78%. Add in Adam Mitchell and it’s 80%.

Who the hell would want to step into the TARDIS if they knew those odds?

It could be said that this tendency to kill, maim, fold, spindle, and mutilate companions is just the way modern television works. Producers feel the need to work characters over just to elicit “the feels” from squeeing little fangirls. But, really, is that necessary? This isn’t just any television show, this is Doctor Who. From the beginning, this was intended to be one of the best shows on the air, and while its history (even its modern history) is checkered, overall it has a damn good track record. Even at its worst, like pizza and oral sex, it’s pretty damn terrific. So it shouldn’t feel the need to sink to these levels.

And this is not an attack on showrunner Steven Moffat. The Vast Toffee Man has come under barrage after barrage of fan criticism since before he took the job, but the tendency to grind companions into fine powder didn’t start with him; Rose and Donna’s fates were sealed by Russell T. Davies. This is a problem with the show itself, not the people running it.

And it needs to end.

We’ll have a new companion coming along next year, if not at the end of this one (the producers are being tight-lipped), so we’ll once again have a chance to set things right. Here’s hoping that the next companion actually travels with the Doctor instead of being picked up from time to time like Clara (and toward the end Amy and Rory), and when the time comes to end their story it ends with a happy ending. Let the next companion end his or her story by ending his exile like Turlough. Or becoming a warrior king like Steven. Or going back home happy like Ian, Barbara, Ben, and Polly. Or falling in love like almost everyone else.

Traveling with the Doctor is supposed to change the companion for the better. Let their stories end well.

“On My Phone”

15/09

Parody lyrics for the classic song from Les Miserables to discourage the use of cell phones in entertainment venues.

(Enter Eponine, texting furiously)

EPONINE

On my phone
Pretending I’m important.
On my phone
Pretending that I’ve got friends.

Even though
I ought to watch the actors
I find Twitter so compelling that I
C
annot look away.

On my phone
And missing all the plot points.
On my phone
Ignoring the reprises.

For these seats
I paid two hundred dollars
But Facebook calls my name and I give
It all my attention.

And I know
I ought to shut it off
That I’m wasting this real life experience.
And although I’m acting like a jerk
Still I play Angry Birds non-stop.

(The rest of the company enters, pleading)

COMPANY

Please watch us
For when the play is over
We’ll be gone
You’ll miss all our hard work.
Without us
The world seems two dimensional
Those tiny screens are just a sorry
Substitute for drama.

EPONINE

I love it,
But every day I’m learning
That real life
Is better than a login.
Without it,
The world is more compelling
And full of real expriences
I have never known!

COMPANY

Please watch us.
Please watch us.
Please watch us.
And please turn off your phone.

On Puppies, Sad and Otherwise.

09/05

PuppyAs an author of what could be construed as science or speculative fiction, it’s been difficult to watch what’s been going on with the Hugo Awards and their hijacking by a group calling themselves the Sad Puppies.

The weeks following the Puppies’ attacks on the Hugos have led to a lot of interesting reactions. There have been criticisms, counter-criticisms, backlash, and some ingenious satire brought about by the whole controversy. And while it might have had the beneficial effect of drawing attention to the Hugo Awards nominating and voting process, that’s probably the only real benefit we writers have felt from the whole thing.

Now I have no real personal objections to any of the Sad Puppies or their anointed nominees, (except for John C. Wright, who is a notorious homophobic dick) and think that they should be allowed their opinions. As well as the freedom to express those opinions. (Even when, like famous homophobic dick John C. Wright, they try unsuccessfully to remove their dickery from the internet.) I question their tactic, however, of hijacking the most prominent awards given to writers of SF in order to advance their agenda.

But the real questions that should be raised by this whole mess have gotten lost in the accompanying shitstorm. The Puppies have concerns. Are they wrong?

Not entirely, but their arguments have sadly lost legitimacy.

The Future Has a Liberal Bias.

Yes, most SF leans toward what those on the right would construe as “liberal” beliefs. And it’s that way for a reason.

Without liberalism and progress, there wouldn’t be a “future.”

Consider the very nature of conservatism. By definition, conservatism prefers a lack of change in society. It thinks things are just fine as they are and that change for change’s sake is a risky thing. That’s a valid argument on their part, but it doesn’t make for good SF. Once again, by definition, science fiction requires major advancements in society and technology in the fictional worlds created by its authors. Using the other popular term for this genre, speculative fiction, you still require a world very unlike the present world which conservatives want to conserve. You need futuristic, fantastical, or supernatural elements that just don’t exist in today’s world.

If you fast forward, say, 300 years for a story and society is essentially the same as it is today (which, to grant them their due, is how conservatives would have it), the story is going to be fairly boring. Yeah, they might have rocket ships and laser guns and that sort of thing, but the most interesting things about future worlds are the way their societies differ from ours today.

Never mind that in just about any sci-fi world worth its salt you’re going to have an alien culture of some kind in it. How does society react to the aliens? How do we perceive their cultures, values, and mores? The only half-decent “right wing” sci-fi I’ve seen with an alien culture is Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, and when you get down to it, that novel is really about how humanity is xenophobic by nature, and we tend to react violently toward the not-we. And xenophobia is one of the driving forces of the extreme right wing.

George R.R. Martin put it best in his blog entry criticizing the puppies linked above: “we love to read about aliens and vampires and elves, are we really going to freak out about Asians and Native Americans?”

So sci-fi and spec-fi really can’t exist in a proper conservative sphere. To have a story, you have to have change. Otherwise you might as well set your stories in the here and now and save yourself the world-building.

While we’re on the subject, let me say a few things about dystopian sci-fi. The rise in popularity of dys over the past decade has rankled some on the right because of the perception that since the granddaddy of the genre (Orwell’s 1984 of course) was an anti-right wing screed that all dys has to be anti-right. Not so. The best dystopian novel of all time actually look place in a liberal utopia which was shown to be crushing the human spirit. Don’t know which one I’m talking about? Go read it for yourself.

But let’s move away from the big picture and zoom in a bit. The Puppies believe that in addition to the genre’s left leaning tendencies there is an active bias against white males in publishing today.

Scratch out the “white” part, and you’re closer to the truth.

No Boys Allowed

In my particular market (again, I don’t consider Young Adult to be a genre; it’s a market) there really is an active bias against males. Not so much male writers, however, but male readers.

Look at the Young Adult bookshelf in any bookstore. What do you see? Plucky heroines. Girls coming of age. Strong women fighting misogynistic dystopias. Plucky heroines coming of age in misogynistic dystopias.

Where are the books for boys?

There are plenty of writers (like myself) who are churning out books aimed at teen boys. There are brave publishers out there who are taking a chance on books aimed at teen boys. But you just can’t find them. It comes from a misguided belief that boys don’t read. Perhaps because boys buy fewer books than girls do. But a large part of that is because there are fewer books for boys to buy than there are aimed at girls. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So when it comes time for buyers for bookstores to order books, they have a subconscious bias against stocking books for boys. Books written for boys are either passed over, buried, or mis-stocked. Publicity people who are used to marketing books towards teen girls have no clue how to target boys and launch less-than-successful campaigns to sell books for boys.

The bias exists. It isn’t a deliberate one, but it’s there nonetheless. And it will be hard to overcome.

But the way writers like I are going to overcome it isn’t to stuff the ballot boxes for YA book awards, or demand that books aimed at girls be removed from preferential spaces and books for boys inserted. The way we are going to overcome it is by writing fiction for boys that is so compelling that it demands to be bought, shelved, and read.

That’s what the Puppies have to do. If you want to sell Boys’ Own, Action-packed, Right-Wing Oriented Sci-Fi, then you have to write BOAPRWOSF that is so good and so compelling that it demands to be read and can stand on its own in a crowded field.

It All Comes Back to Heinlein

Robert Heinlein was a racist, sexist, homophobic, fascist dick. His writing reflects that point of view.

And he won the “Best Novel” Hugo four times.

Four. Times. He holds the record. No one has yet surpassed him.

I hate everything Heinlein stood for, and yet Stranger In a Strange Land* is one of my all-time favorite novels. As is Job: A Comedy of Justice. He’s written some other stuff I like, too. He was a terrible human being but he was a great writer. And he still gets props for it.

The people who are doing most of the whining that “Heinlein couldn’t win a Hugo today” (never mind that the main reason that he couldn’t is because he is dead) because they can’t get their stuff nominated for awards overlook the fact that their writing is nowhere near as good as Heinlein’s. Nor is mine, but I admit it. I aspire to be that good but I am not there yet. But that’s not the fault of people who don’t nominate me for awards; it’s my own fault for not being good enough to compete with much better work.

And if you look at your own work objectively, maybe you’ll come to the same realization.

In Conclusion

Probably the worst thing about the whole Sad Puppies debacle is that in order to fight against the Social Justice Warriors (“SJW’s”) they so rightly despise is that they have adopted the exact same tactics as these SJW’s! They have resorted to blacklisting, ballot box stuffing, bullying, and threats. Rather than embracing the conservative belief in the free market, they have created a Stalinist situation where voters are allowed to vote for anyone they want, as long as it’s candidates approved by the oligarchy. Instead of producing work that is capable of winning awards on its own merits they have perverted the process to bestow now meaningless awards on substandard product.

Worse, they are pushing good writers who deserve the recognition to pull themselves out of contention because the tactics of the Puppies has forever tainted their nominations. And they may have just robbed the most prestigious awards for SF of all legitimacy in the future.

That, Puppies, is sad.


* By the way, if you ever want to see how Progressive Capitalism can work in sci-fi, and how rightist theories can lead to technological advancement, the world of Stranger is one to look at for a model.

Spamazon

04/08

One great thing about Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and Createspace services: they will let you publish anything.

One terrible thing about Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and Createspace services: they will let you publish anything.

It’s called (among other things) Spamazon – when something hits it big, the me-too crowd comes along and puts out cheap knockoffs with deceptive titles to con the shopper into perhaps buying the knockoff instead of the original.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a great example. Until enough people complained and enough cease and desist letters went out, you could find “50 Shades of Grey,” “Fifty Shades of Gray,” “50 Shades of Gray,” “Fifty Grey Shades,” and even “Thirty-Five Shades of Grey” on Amazon.

This isn’t a question of parody (witness Fifty Shades of Grey Matter and Fifty Shades of Beige) but a slightly gentler form of plagiarism. Someone tries to capitalize on another author’s success by putting out something quickly with a similar title. Someone searching Amazon quickly might get confused and click on the wrong book.

So how widespread is this problem? So widespread that it’s touched upon my circle of friends.

Exhibit A

In 2011, my friend Alice Ozma put out a memoir entitled The Reading Promise. It carried two different subtitles depending upon the edition, either “3,218 Nights of Reading with My Father” or more commonly “My Father and the Books we Shared.” It’s the true story about a single father who promises to read to his daughter every night for 100 nights. And after those hundred nights are over, they keep going until she leaves for college.

Response to her book was immediate and amazing, the kind of acclaim that most of us authors dream about. It got rave reviews, was shortlisted for prizes, and spawned a whole movement of getting parents to read with their children. It’s even being made into a motion picture.

So what reward comes from all this success?

Last month, a 38 page book quietly slipped into the “stacks” at Amazon. It’s a fictional story about a mother who reads to her son every night.

Sound familiar? Guess what the title was.

Aw, you guessed it. Probably even before you looked at the picture didn’t you.

After three years of notoriety, acclaim, and time spent on the best seller charts, a writer stumbles upon the same exact concept (just gender reversed) and the same exact title and quickly rushes out a book. As people hear about this charming book about a father and daughter reading every night, they will go search on Amazon. Maybe one out of a hundred might click on the knockoff instead of the original. That is enough of a response to make some real money when you consider how many people might be looking for the original. Especially once the film comes out.

The tactic seems to be working, too. As of this morning, the knockoff is at #281,749 on the Kindle charts while the original is at #100,382.

Stuck Pig Syndrome

Like any legitimate author, I am opposed to Spamazon knockoffs. Even when the author being robbed from isn’t someone I know. So I did what any conscientious Amazon shopper would do: I wrote a review to help dispel the confusion.

review

This book is a direct ripoff (down to the title) of “The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared” by Alice Ozma and Jim Brozina. Don’t reward plagiarism; go buy the original instead.

Yep, I went there. I used the “P” word. And I stand by it. You put out a book with an identical premise and identical title to a best seller, you are a plagiarist. You are trying to make money off of another person’s hard work.

The writer in question posted a response to my review on Amazon, as is his right. I could tell right away that I had hit home.

“When I wrote my children’s picture book, I did not know about Alice Ozma’s book of a similar title.”

Uh, huh. First off, when you have an idea it’s good practice to go make sure it hasn’t been done. I’ve had lots of concepts that I didn’t develop because someone got there before me. It’s common.

And not “similar” title. The same title. Alice Ozma’s book is entitled The Reading Promise. The knockoff is entitled The Reading Promise. That is not “similar.”

Continuing: “There are several (many) books/collections of poetry, etc. titled ‘The Promise.’ Because all of the titles share a similarity, should they all be considered plagiarized works?”

Uh, huh. Yes, there are many books called The Promise. But there are only two entitled The Reading Promise. And those books carry identical concepts, with only the gender of the characters reversed.

But the writer in question did not think that a public response to my review was sufficient. He had to send me a threatening E-mail this morning:

 

Subject: Defamatory Comments

Pab,

I’m sure you are aware of the fact that I’ve read your defamatory comments about my book online. I take defamatory comments very seriously, so I respectfully ask that you please take them down.

I’m not sure if you actually read my book, but if you have you certainly know that the content (right down to the genre) is not like your friend’s book in any way; is she aware of what you are doing?

As you likely know, book titles are not copyrighted. Take a look at your book “Norton Hears a Who,” which only changed one letter from Giesel’s title. The fact that I happened to use three of the words from her ten-word title, one of which was “the,” certainly does not constitute plagiarism.

When I titled my book, I did not know that her book existed.

Thank you very much.

 

To which I say….

 

You released a book with identical concept and identical title (the title of Ms. Ozma’s book is “The Reading Promise,” and had two separate subtitles during its publication history) to a book published three years prior. A book which was not only widely reviewed and received extensive publicity, but is currently being developed into a motion picture.

It’s safe to assume that a book released three years after another with the same title and the same concept (only gender reversed) is purely intended to deceive the customer into purchasing the new book instead of the original.

No, titles are not copyrighted. But concepts connected to titles are. Ozma’s The Reading Promise is a story about a parent reading to a child. Your The Reading Promise is about a parent reading to a child. Published three years after the first, after the former had entered development for a motion picture.

Were I to put out a 30 page murder mystery entitled Stinky Blinky: The Mysterious Case of the Gas We Pass about a detective on the trail of a strangely flatulent child, you would have a case against me. And would have a right to point out the similarity in a review on a bookseller’s website. As I did with your knockoff of Ozma’s book. Although a good case might be made that my work would be a parody, something that can hardly be used as a defense of your work.

One of the first things an author should do when writing is to use Google. Any search at all for your title over the past three years would have returned dozens to hundreds of hits about Ozma’s book, which should have prompted you to pick another title. That you did not suggests an intent to deceive, either on your part or your publisher.

As for your comments about Norton Hears a Who and Other Stories, you might want to consult a dictionary for the word “homage.” No one in their right mind would mistake a collection of a daily comic strip for a Dr. Seuss book. I made no effort to pass it off as such. And the concept of the six strips within the collection that lent the book its title (namely an insane historical figure thinking a flower is talking to him) is not an attempt to deceive book shoppers but a homage bordering on a parody of the original. On the other hand, you released a book with an identical title and identical concept, not a parody nor an homage.

I stand by my review.

Oh, and by the way….

For future reference, sir, this is how you handle a one-star review on Amazon.

How to build a real life superhero costume on the cheap

19/06

Writing superhero fiction is a tricky thing. The tech possessed by heroes tends to need to be more fantastic than what we have in real life, simply for convenience in storytelling. After all, why worry about realism in a world where people can fly and shoot laser beams out of their eyes?

But you also have to keep things somewhat grounded in reality. The suspension of disbelief only goes so far, and eventually you can reach a point where a reader’s mind calls bullshit on you. I push that limit a lot with Bobby’s gear in the Sidekick series and have been called on it. Readers will accept anti-grav boots, but bulletproof boxer shorts? Get real.

The idea of a costume to conceal a crime fighter’s identity dates back to 1936 when Lee Falk created the Phantom, arguably the first modern “masked man” vigilante. When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster invented the modern superhero with Superman in the 1938, they dressed him in a sideshow strongman’s outfit to stress his strength and added a cape to allow fluidity of movement in their art. Then with Bill Finger’s designs for Batman in 1939, the idea of a functional themed costume became reality. These costumes served their purposes and set the standards for creators like me to this day.

So I was thinking recently, what if I wanted to create a superhero outfit today? Something that would make it easier for a person, should he or she be so inclined, to go out and fight crime in their spare time. Granted, intense training would be required and a budding superhero would be most effective in peak physical condition, but there would still be weaknesses that the costume would need to help.

DISCLAIMER. This post is for entertainment purposes only. I am not suggesting anyone out there actually try being a superhero. It’s dangerous. Do not sue me if you do something stupid.

The Head

Most superheroes wear masks, thanks to Lee Falk, but a mask alone is not sufficient protection today. We don’t have comic book tech to help us, so we need real life possibilities.

Let’s start with a helmet. The Premier Crown JCR100 Riot Duty Helmet offers a lot of neat features and will withstand some pretty nasty blows. It also offers enough room for some of the features we will be adding to it.

opplanet-armasight-dark-strider-night-vision-scope Instead of a mask, why not go with something functional as well as disguise worthy? I chose the ESS Profile NVG Military Goggles from Safety Glasses USA. Good eye protection, and the tinted lenses will also keep your eyes from being recognized. Eventually, however, you might want to replace these with the new Israeli Lightweight Night Vision Goggles when they become available. Until then, if you need night vision, try the Armasight Dark Strider Gen 1+ Night Vision Binocular (pictured), which seem to be the least bulky option.

north-7700mask You’ll also need something over your lower face. The North 7700 Half Mask will hide your nose and mouth, provide some protection against pepper spray and tear gas, and also help distort your voice if you need to speak. Remember, the bad guys you will be up against will not have any delusions of being honorable and obeying laws against certain anti-personnel weapons, so get the most protection you can.

Finally, there is room under the helmet for earphones, so try something like Kinivo BTH220 Bluetooth Stereo Headphones linked to a cellphone stashed safely away so you can stay in constant communication. And since you won’t want to call the cops with your real number, go with the Burner app!

The Body

Why does Batman have a big yellow target on his chest? Because that’s where he’s the most protected. Yeah, the super-cool lycra suits artists like to draw might look good, but unless you are nigh invulnerable, they’re worthless. Body armor is the way to go.

The best bet is to get everything you need in one handy kit: the M2100 Disturbance Control Kit. It provides you with a vest, shin pads, forearm guards, and groin protection with a nifty carrying bag. Its vest isn’t bulletproof, however, so you’ll want a ProMAX Concealable bulletproof vest to go underneath everything. And when it’s warm outside, you may want to add a personal cooling system to your gear.

The Feet

I’m going to assume speed is of the essence, instead of some specialized need like climbing, so I selected the Timberland PRO Mudsill Low Steel Toe from Zappos. Steel toed protection, lightweight, and traction. Good running shoes for when you’re chasing down the bad guy.

Weapon and Tools

You will need some kind of weapon when facing down a supervillain. The one I decided upon doesn’t come stock, and will need some gadgeteering on your part to work perfectly.

taser-c21 Start with a Taser. You’ll probably want two: one with cartridges that you can stash in your utility belt (see below) and one that you are going to jury-rig into your glove to deliver a trademark Knock-Out Punch!

Wire the leads into the glove that you will wear on your dominant (punching) hand. Wire one lead to a steel band lined with a ceramic center worn over your index finger like a ring, and the other to an identical band around your little finger. This way it’s unlikely the two electrodes will come into contact accidentally, and the ceramics will provide extra insulation to protect you.

Then wire the trigger into a button you can easily reach with your other hand. When you go to deliver your punch, squeeze the trigger with your other hand as you deliver the blow. Pow! Incapacitated villain for about 30 seconds; more than enough time to secure the evildoer.

Speaking of which, you’ll want some disposable zip-tie handcuffs to secure your villain while he waits for the police to arrive. Always keep a few on you.

Add in the usual necessaries like a flashlight, first aid kit, and an energy bar or two all held close to you by a freakin’ Ninja Utility Belt!

Finishing it off

Over top of all this, you’ll want the actual costume. Sure, you can be gaudy and decorative, but if you’re more into function than style, you can’t beat some flame-retardant coveralls. If you must, add on a cape, too

The Bottom Line

So how much will all this cost? Not as much as you might think! I’ve been keeping a running total, and everything in this entry can be purchased today for under $2,500.00. That’s allowing you $200.00 for the outer costume and cape. If you want to pick up a prepaid burner cell phone that you can swap SIMs in, add on an extra $30 to $700 depending on how nifty you want it to be. I suggest cheap because going into battle with the baddies will tend to take its toll on electronics.

Again, I don’t recommend going out and fighting crime on your own. But from a writer’s standpoint, it is nice to know it’s possible, and not just for a millionaire playboy!

What to Read to Prepare You for when Your Girlfriend Forces You to Read “The Fault in our Stars.”

08/06

The Fault in Our StarsAttention, teenage boys. If she hasn’t already discovered it, your girlfriend will shortly become entranced with John Green’s The Fault in our Stars. And you know what that means.

She will force you to read it.

Okay, maybe she’ll drag you to the movie that opened this weekend. But you probably aren’t going to get off that lightly. She will read the book. And she will fall in love with it. And she will give it to you saying that it will change your life.

Now, let me say up front that The Fault in our Stars is a great book. And it’s a book you should read. But let’s face it, it’s chick lit. It’s a book for teenage girls. It’s from a girl’s perspective, it’s got sappy romance in it, and its male hero is a guy who you will be compared to for your entire relationship and found wanting because he is too good to actually exist.

You will, however, be forced to read The Fault in our Stars. And you will be better off for reading it. In the end, you will probably enjoy it. But you should prepare yourself now for the experience, to make it easier and more enjoyable for you.

Book Swap

How do I know that you will be forced to read The Fault in our Stars? Because your girlfriend is going to get the idea from the book itself. Hazel, our plucky heroine, forces Augustus, her impossibly perfect boyfriend-to-be, to read her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction. He, in turn, forces her to read his favorite series of books based on a videogame that he loves. They both end up enjoying each other’s books.

This is what is going to inspire your girlfriend to make you read this book. And you should be prepared to give her a book in return. While I ought to put in a plug here for Sidekickit’s probably still too much a guy’s book. It won’t give you an insight on what your girlfriend sees in books, and it won’t be as easy for her to love as it was you (I hope). So I’m prepared to offer some suggestions for you. You should pick at least one of these books right now (as in as soon as you are done reading this article) and go read it. Then when your girlfriend comes rushing at you with the black-white-and-blue paperback you are going to get to know so well, you will have something to put in her hands in return.

Looking for Alaska

Probably the best way to prepare for a John Green novel is with another John Green novel. Believe it or not, John Green has not always written chick lit. TFioS (better get used to the acronym now; you will be using it in texts with your girlfriend soon) is his first book with a female narrator, written from her perspective. Up until now, his books have been pretty much firmly in the “guy” camp.

Looking for Alaska follows Miles (also known ironically as “Pudge”) as he transfers to a boarding school and meets a group or somewhat insane friends. Chief among them are his roommate, “The Colonel,” and the girl across the hall, Alaska Young. Alaska is your typical John Green female character: perky, quirky, deep, and batshit insane. You will fall in love with her right away. And just as Augustus is the too-good-to-be-real boyfriend you will be compared to for your entire relationship, your girlfriend will think of Alaska as the too-perfect-to-be-real girlfriend you must be secretly comparing her to. Maybe that will lead her to go easy on your imperfections.

And if The Colonel, Miles, and Alaska aren’t enough crazy for you, wait until you meet Takumi. I can all but guarantee you will wear a fox headband the next time you go out to do something stupid.

Best of all, Looking for Alaska is not light reading. It’s fun, upbeat, quirky, then takes you right off an emotional cliff. It’s brilliant, and will prepare you for the rollercoaster that is TFioS.

King Dork

King DorkDid you have to read The Catcher in the Rye? Did you hate it as much as I do? You are in luck. Read this one.

Tom Henderson (known not so affectionately as “Moe,” as in “Chi-Mo,” as in “Child Molester,” you’ll find out why) is trying to survive high school with the help of his best friend Sam Hellerman (to whom he is permanently bound through the power of alphabetical order). They start a band. Okay, several bands. The names of which change every week or so whenever they get bored with the old name.

It’s a coming of age story in the modern world. It’s hilarious. It’s got some deep mysteries in it. But it’s not plodding, it’s not condescending, and none of the characters are anywhere as unreally perfect as the characters in TFioS. You will like them. Even the ones you’re supposed to hate.

This is one of my favorite books of the 21st Century so far. There’s a reason I put a dog-eared copy of it in Bobby’s backpack in Sidekick. And best of all, the sequel is finally coming out! Your girlfriend may not like it as much as she might some of the others on this list, but that will give you an excuse to not like everything she gives you.

The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner (Maze Runner Series #1) (MTI) (Exclusive Edition)The girls had The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Legend. Finally, here’s some dystiopYAn fiction for guys.

Thomas wakes up inside a maze with a bunch of other boys and no memory. They have a nice structured life in their clearing in the middle of the maze, but the corridors around them are patrolled by some really nasty creatures.

Then a girl shows up and announces that she is the last one who will be sent. Supplies stop coming. Other nasty crap happens. And it’s up to Thomas to lead the boys (and girl) toward their destiny.

This book really is a boys’ Divergent. It’s dystopian, action packed, with mysteries to solve, and two sequels that take the story in really unexpected directions. You will really get a kick out of this one. And your girlfriend might enjoy it, too, if she likes other dystopian stuff.

Oh, and please read the book instead of seeing the movie. Yeah, I know the movie has Stiles from Teen Wolf in it, but read the book. You will thank me later.

Beautiful Creatures

Beautiful Creatures (Beautiful Creatures Series #1)“Huh?” you’re saying. “Isn’t this just more chick-lit?”

True, it’s a paranormal romance, but unlike other series in this sub-genre, the Caster Chronicles (as this book and its sequels and spin-offs are known) are generally written from the point of view of the male protagonist, Ethan Waite. Ethan falls in love with Lena and finds out that (a) she’s magical and (b) she’s cursed. And all the fun spills out from there.

If you’re going to be forced to read romances by your girlfriend, this is a good chance to get used to some of the tropes of the genre while still having a protagonist who you can identify with.

Plus, the two comic relief characters of Ridley and Link proved so popular that they’ve been spun off into their own series. I’ll bet you fall for them harder than Ethan falls for Lena.

Again, please read the book and ignore the movie.

Conclusion

TFioS is, I must emphasize again, an amazing book. Well written, great storytelling, and worth reading. But if you’re reluctant to jump into it just because your girlfriend found it compelling, the books on this list will help you prepare your brain for the experience to come, and give you something to foist off on her in return. (And since Augustus and Hazel did that in TFioS she’ll probably find that fact romantic.) Pick one and go read it now. Then you’ll be ready.

And I guarantee you will love it.