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The Semplica Girl Diaries or Why Does Art Lit Love Bad Science Fiction?

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Despite all the progress made in yadda yadda, Science Fiction is still a ghetto. Sure the occasional Philip K. Dick will be plucked out into the spotlight, but despite the aggressive trashing of the genre by the New Wave, Science Fiction stays in the ghetto.

Sure it may at times be better written, smarter and deeper than the Art Lit (and in keeping with Sturgeon’s Law, an equal amount of it is crap), but it’s just not serious enough. Greg Bear, David Brin, Vernon Vinge, etc are never going to show up in the New Yorker. They’re just not serious enough. (Stephen King is, but that’s a whole other club subject.)

But when Art Lits like science fiction (small caps), it’s usually some very badly written Science Fiction from their own ranks. The kind of thing that almost no SF magazine (except the maybe Asimov’s under Gardner “If It’s Bad Art Lit Posing as Science Fiction, I Love It” Dozois) would accept. It’s bound to be so hackneyed and such a string of lame cliches that it would get tossed into the trash after a page.

The big writer now that we’re supposed to be paying attention to is George Saunders, who is “the writer” of the age. No really. He’s “the writer for our time.” Until maybe next week. There’s a bunch of his books in the window of every Art Lit book store, which almost makes me feel good about the triumph of Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Saunders lifted into a whole new stratosphere with a story that appeared in The New Yorker a few months ago. It’s one of the standouts in his new book. “The Semplica Girl Diaries” is an example of writing that combines both devastating realism and a stunning detour into surrealism.

It pretty much floored me. Many others had a similar reaction. It was circulated and commented on the way a trend piece on Slate might be passed around. The eighty-six-year-old mother of a friend of mine was so excited she called up her son right after she finished it to say she thought it was the best story she’d ever read. Again, the publication of this story felt like an event, a beautiful moment when emotion, meaning, and experimentation with form dovetailed perfectly.

What is “The Semplica Girl Diaries”? It’s bad Science Fiction.

Semplica Girl Diaries is bad for three reasons.

1. It’s badly written. This is a function of Art Lit which has a fetish for awkwardly written narration in a way that no human thinks or talks as a signpost that this is artsy important writing that gets down into the consciousness stream of all life on earth. Maybe the narration is supposed to clue you in that the story is set in the “NOT SO DISTANT FUTURE” (another staple of Art Lit and its Mudane SF cousin), but other characters speak a coherent modern English, so that’s not so.

“Hereby resolve to write in this book at least twenty minutes a night, no matter how tired. (If discouraged, just think how much will have been recorded for posterity after one mere year!)”

This is a sample. It gets annoying after one sentence. By ten pages it’s unnecessary nails on a chalk board. It’s supposed to project sincerity, working class realism and that kind of stuff. It doesn’t.

2. It doesn’t make any sense. This is another function of Art Lit, which we’ll get back to. When Art Lit does SF, it tries to make no sense, that way it’s surrealistic, rather than a plot. The French sighed when Edgar Allan Poe insisted on laying out and researching exactly how to fly a balloon to the moon for his satirical short story. He was so imaginative, yet so prosaically Americans, they said. Science Fiction is still Edgar Allan Poe. Lit Fic is still French.

3. And this is the really relevant one… it’s a string of cliches with political relevance.

“The Semplica Girl Diaries” has been done 400,000 times before in Science Fiction. It’s a concept that has been explored since the early days of the genre. Even the politically relevant aspects of it have been done to death. Cheap labor and the middle class? Done. There is nothing new to say about it and Semplica Girl Diaries has nothing new to say.

It cloaks its non-newness in style and in the equally unoriginal YOU THINK THIS IS A CURRENT STORY BECAUSE I MENTION LOTTERY TICKETS AND JOBS, BUT SURPRISE IT’S TAKING PLACE IN THE FUTURE, EVEN THOUGH EVERYTHING IS THE SAME EXCEPT FOR A SINGLE PIECE OF TECHNOLOGY AND LEGALIZING SLAVERY.  It cloaks it in the sneering at the Middle Class that makes Art Lit go round.

Strip away the style and you have a bland story about how the middle class oppresses the lower class to climb into the upper class using a Science Fiction cliche that is handled as ineptly and implausibly as is humanly possible.

If you have never read anything except The New Yorker before, then yes it’s new to you. If you have read Science Fiction before then it’s like seeing a white guy do a lame Chuck Berry and watching the New York Times critic praise him as a defining moment in music history.

Science Fiction is still in the ghetto. And Art Lit is its own ghetto. The two don’t often meet and that makes it possible for crap like The Semplica Girl Diaries to be treated as a great story, instead of a lame watered down, shoddily written, badly plotted retread.

Library Porn vs Library Books

It’s a story as old as time. Library has patrons browsing porn on library computers. Other patrons complain about the porn. Library solves problem by installing some kind of privacy hoods on computers that will make porn users feel like Darth Vader and frighten off any complaining patrons.

library porn

the old Times Square… now at your Library

In all the tireless debate over whether people have the right to look at porn in a library or not, no one asks whether libraries should really be spending money on porn terminals during hard times. And forget the porn thing.

When I walk into a library, it’s mostly people checking Facebook and playing Farmville or some other Zynga clickety click crap.

Last month I asked whether the transformation of the New York Public Library from book depot to teen hangout with Farmville stations really served its core mission?

I refused to support NYPL’s latest begging letter campaign because I see it eliminating book departments like crazy while buying laptops to loan out so people can play Farmville and watch porn. That’s not what a library is. Science Fiction sections have been eliminated or moved as far as possible in many libraries. And books are a library’s core mission.

the modern library

One guy watching porn, one guy playing a Zynga game. One guy watching FOX News. Who needs books anyway?

I’m sorry if some people don’t have a computer at home that they can use to play Farmville or watch porn. Maybe they can make their own Kickstarter. But if a library is going to have computers, they should be research terminals.

There’s no reason why funds should be diverted from books to subsidizing Farmville\Porn habits. And putting it special terminals for porn watching turns a library into the old Times Square. What’s next bringing in strippers to the reserved books section?

Moments like this are a wake up call for library and city officials who have to decide whether they want libraries to be places to find books or not.

Should Science Fiction Writers Blog?

Science Fiction writers ( along with all writers and anyone doing anything creative that he needs to market) are told to blog (and get on Twitter) to promote themselves. I don’t know about you, but I have never seen a writer’s blog that made me more likely to buy his stuff. Mostly it makes me less likely to buy it.

library books

At its most harmless the Science Fiction writer’s blog is just self-promotion, like George R.R. Martin’s Livejournal where he blogs about football and Game of Thrones merchandise and his latest appearances. If you really want to know where to buy a replica of Ice or where George R.R. Martin will be tomorrow, that’s the place to go.

The promotional power of that is limited by its blandness. No one is going to become more interested in Martin or his books by reading his LiveJournal blog and no one but the most die-hard fans are likely to keep coming back.

But bland self-promotion is preferable to the political rants that fill most Science Fiction writers blogs. Whether it’s Jerry Pournelle or Fred Pohl, John C. Wright or David Brin, visiting their blogs means wading into left-wing and right-wing talking points. And even a good writer turns into a bad writer when talking about politics and starts sounding like your Uncle Steve after a few drinks.

Everything is simplistic. The country is being ruined by the other side. If we just went with their straight-line approach, the country would be a wonderful place to live in no time at all. How intelligent people can seriously think that we would have space stations and 200 year lifespans if we just had a one party state baffles me. But most people think that way in a partisan period.

Even when I agree with them, I lose respect for them. What they contribute is rarely worthwhile or thought out. They rant and in a field where you are at least supposed to give the impression that you think about things, instead of just going with your prejudices and comparing anyone you disagree with to Hitler, they don’t leave you with a favorable impression of the cranium and character of the writer.

Some Science Fiction writers are insecure about the internet. They think that they need to compete with Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi. But those are bloggers are bad writers. And you have to pick one or the other. You can either be an InternetAngryPerson who tries to wittily rant about things or you can be a writer. Being both is a difficult trick.

A good book doesn’t always promote itself, but it promotes itself better than a bad blog.

John Barnes Reviews His Own Book

The humility certainly doesn’t hurt.

john barnes

And John Barnes even gave his own book a one star review.

I always thought that Barnes was always underrated myself, but his books are hit and miss. The meme series was disturbing, but at times felt dark and senseless. Kaleidoscope Century may be the bleakest Science Fiction novel ever written and it seems to ring more true today than it did back then. A lot of his time travel/dimension shifting stuff seemed interesting in concept, but not as much in execution. I haven’t gotten to the Daybreak novels, they seemed a little too much like thrillers, though I hear there may be a meme element, and only read through one of the Thousand Culture books and it was forgettable.

One day Barnes may write the big novel that has a huge impact on the field. Maybe he already has and I just never read it.

Random footnote. Seeing Amazon reviews from 1998 just feels weird. 1998 already feels too long ago. As if the internet shouldn’t have existed back then. I grew up with the internet being a new thing and seeing 1998 on there is a reminder that we’ve been living with it, not just WELL or BBS’s, but the full-on ecommerce shiny websites version for a while already.

Fifty Shades of Book Death

fifty shades of grey new york times besteller listWhat you’re looking at here is the New York Times Bestseller list in Fiction. (Non-fiction is headed by two books attacking Obama and Bill O’Reilly proving that liberals killed Lincoln or something)

It’s also proof that we should just give up on this whole literacy thing. Because we’ve had it. Just because people buy books and can read, doesn’t mean that they can read. It just means they can scan words, one after another.

We’re not talking about the bestseller list being clotted up by the latest garbage from Tom Clancy or Richard Patterson North or the Oprah Book Club. This is wankfic at the top of the bestseller list. Not just at the top but covering the entire bestseller list. This is what people want as their beach reading. And it doesn’t end there.

Author Bret Easton Ellis tweeted, “Completely committed to adapting Fifty Shades of Grey. This is not a joke. Christian Grey and Ana: potentially great cinematic characters,”

Of course it’s not a joke. Jokes are funny. This is a different kind of joke. More like a Joker joke that proves that everything is senseless and meaningless.

Meanwhile, movie rumors are buzzing. Emma Roberts, Lucy Hale and Ashley Benson have expressed interest in playing virginal college student Anastasia Steele.

Julia Roberts built her career on playing a cheerful hooker, her niece can do it by playing some girl to be slapped around. The gap isn’t that big, it’s just indicative.

It might not be such a bad thing if we could take away the reading privileges from some people. “You have abused your reading abilities, so they are being confiscated. After a year you might get them back. Now go watch Grey’s Anatomy.”

 

Spot the Bad Book Cover #153

bad book coverSo we have five different fonts. Some of which are completely incompatible with each other.

Two of those fonts are in the title which is in three parts, which is okay because it’s also Book Three of whatever horror this is.

It’s a “paranormal romantic suspense novel” which is a complicated way of saying it’s a romance novel with supernatural elements.

The cover features a skimpily dressed female character with two skin tones, one skin tone that no human being could possibly have. One that’s most commonly found in photoshopped models. Her body also happens to be the kind only found on photoshopped models. There are serious questions as to whether it could even exist. But that would be the “paranormal” part.

Fighting demons or crime or photoshop is hard work. The best outfit to wear to the job is leather pants, which give you the freedom of movement to squat on railroad tracks and a halter top that’s just barely laced. And calf length boots for a pose that looks like she just sprained her feet.

Asian martial arts weapons being wielded by white lady are also mandatory. Because supernatural conflicts require Asian gear, leather pants and an extra long braid.

The blurb includes the words, “nonstop action”, “deadly”, “twisting”, also “clever” and “compelling”. It somehow forgot to mention that the book is “epic”, “stunning” or “a thrill a minute ride to the outer edges of all human thought, feeling and reason that will change your life forever.”

But it’s totally implied.

 

Merchandising the Hell out of Game of Thrones

You can’t blame a writer for trying to make money from his creation. You can blame him for an extended narrative relying on gimmicks and you can also blame him for looking at Farmville and thinking, “Wouldn’t it be neat if we made something like that except with Game of Thrones.”

Yes sadly that’s a thing. And it comes from George R.R. Martin’s blog, alongside pitches for the actual Iron Throne, swords and figurines from the TV series.

I don’t know much about social media. I don’t have a facebook or twitter account. But I’ve been told a few people have them, and that some of those people like to play social media games. I’m told the biggest social media game involves running a farm.

Surely, I thought, there must be something one could do on social media that would be more fun that growing turnips and feeding chickens. Like, say, scheming and plotting, murders and marriages, contesting for power.

HBO shared the feeling, and together we have granted the license for a social media game based on GAME OF THRONES to a great new start-up company called Disruptor Beam ((http://disruptorbeam.com/ )) Game development is already well under way.

I’m not a major expert on Zynga country, but I’m sure they already have a ton of games that cover that territory. Just not one with the Game of Thrones brand.

The news stories on Disruptor’s site keep pushing the “It’s not Farmville” angle so my guess is that Disruptor’s PR people handed

game of thrones merchandising crap

Tacky merchandising is coming

Martin that angle and told him to go with it. Disruptor Beam lists no previous games so I’m assuming a few veterans of other social gaming companies who came together to make their own company, hire some newbies, get a lucrative license, put out a game that gets some attention entirely because it’s based on a TV series that gets some attention mainly because it’s on HBO which has a smooth PR machine.

But isn’t this overkill?

Martin’s blog is full of a ton of merchandising Game of Thrones crap. There’s already a game out.  There’s also reportedly going to be an MMO. Now there’s a social media game out. There’s a TV series and a graphic novel. All for a series of books that isn’t close to finished.

At this rate most people will be sick of Game of Thrones long before it’s finished. It’s not just oversaturated, it’s supersaturated. It’s everywhere and it’s really not that good. But even if it were that good, nothing survives this much stuff being associated with it. Even Lord of the Rings lost some of its stature because for a while you couldn’t turn left without seeing another figurine or game. And that’s a time tested series.

If you think this isn’t overkill, have a look at the HBO Game of Thrones store for things like a concert tour shirt with the names of Season 2 episodes, an iPhone skin that just says Khal on it, and an actual crown. This is the definition of pump and dump. Saturate a topic, sell as much of it as you can, until everyone is sick of it.

Oversaturating Game of Thrones serves HBO’s interests. They want to pull as much money out of it as possible, out of the gate, and move on to the next thing. Saturating Game of Thrones keeps it a trending topic and pulls in viewers to subscribe to HBO which is the game plan. When people get bored, HBO will have already rolled out the next thing.

But is it in Martin’s interest? George R.R. Martin wasn’t a major personality before this. He was a talented writer, but now he’s gone pop culture. It’s a big opportunity and cashing in on it is natural, but he needs to think of his long term interests which don’t just revolve around selling as many Game of Thrones trinkets as possible. It’s in how people see Game of Thrones after HBO has pumped it and dumped it and his image as a writer who can do more than Game of Thrones, not as the bearded guy on the Game of Thrones shopping network.

Memes, catchphrases, trends wear out quickly. The more you oversaturate it, the faster it wears out. Game of Thrones will wear out before the last book is done. The backlash will come even earlier. And what happens then?

The New York Public Library’s War on Books

Walk into any public library and you are confronted with stacks of begging letters to send out to Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council asking them to keep funding intact for libraries. What you aren’t confronted with… are that antiquated technology known as books.

library books

Pictured, not a library priority

Trying to find books in a New York Public Library has become a challenge. The library is daring you to go ahead and actually find a book and walk out with it.

The first thing you see when you walk into a library are flyers for a dozen events, none of them having anything to do with books. You can find everything from economic literacy classes to cartoon drawing to a film series on the plight of Group X in period Y. No books though. The events are mostly geared to teens and a lot of them are even more useless than I made them sound.

Next up are the computers. Row after row of computers with patrons using them to play games and mess around with Facebook. Many libraries also have laptops that can be borrowed by patrons, so they can also play games and chat online. The computers can, in theory, be used for research, but most of the time they’re arcades.

After that you reach the counter. There are a few books at the counter, but they’re current bestsellers on a 1 Week loan. Even on the rare occasion when there’s something to read in that pile, there is no actual time to read them.

Past the counter are the reserve shelves, where books that patrons have reserved ahead of time, sit waiting for them. Why put reserve books in a priority space near the exit? I don’t know, but I’ve seen it in enough libraries to assume it’s policy. Instead of walking into a library and seeing books, there are shelves filled with wrapping paper books that no one but their designated borrower can take out.

the modern library

Pictured... a library priority. One guy watching porn, one guy playing a Zynga game. One guy watching a FOX News video. Who needs books anyway?

Now you might think that you’re about to find some books. Good luck. Next stop are the DVD’s. Blockbuster may be out of business, but the New York Public Library, funded by tax dollars, is still in the DVD rental business. Want to see Adam Sandler or Eddie Murphy’s latest movie? Go to the library. Don’t worry, you won’t be distracted by any of those books. The New York Public Library has made sure you won’t be offended by encountering any printed matter on your quest to use your taxpayer subsidized version of Blockbuster Video.

In the corner there might be some audio books to slowly adjust patrons to the idea that there might be actual books in the library. But actual books for adults who can read English? Good luck.

There will be a few bestsellers in the New Fiction and New Non-Fiction shelves somewhere near the front or in the middle of the library. Hope you like James Patterson, Bill O’Reilly, Dean Koontz, diet books, Oprah, Richard North Patterson, Jimmy Fallon, Dan Rather and Jackie Collins.

Most libraries now prioritize foreign language books for immigrants or books for teens. I have seen libraries where you have to go all the way to the back just to find the fiction section. Other libraries where the fiction section is on a high floor. I visited a library where not only was the first floor reserved for teen and foreign language books, but normal patrons were barred from sitting on chairs on the first floor because they were reserved for teens. (It would probably have been illegal to also reserve them for foreign speakers.)

Actually getting to the Fiction section has become a challenge. There was a time, not so long ago, where you could walk into a library and quickly encounter books. Now you have to walk around the library, hoping to one day run into the Fiction section. You have to take elevators and escalators. All to get to the meat and potatoes section of the library. The Fiction section. (Not to mention History, which is often just as hard to get to.)

new york public library

Sure there aren't many books... but look how shiny it is. It's just like the Apple store

Science Fiction books take the worst of it. In one library the Science Fiction section has been moved around so many times that it’s approaching light speed. In another the entire Science Fiction section was disintegrated, and combined together with Romance and a few other genres in a mess of books, sorted only by alphabet, that hardly anyone touches. Who benefits from this besides lazy librarians?

Science Fiction isn’t the only section that suffers, but it’s the whipping boy, the one that every library thinks is disposable. Mysteries and Romance have a higher status. They’re more likely to get placement somewhere accessible. They’re better stocked and better positioned.

But the New York Public Library has decided that its core is being a teen hangout and an immigrant reading room. A library should have teen books and foreign language books, but those should not be its main activity. There’s a difference between a social center and a library, and the difference is literacy.

The New York Public Library, like actual businesses, is so desperately catering to people who can’t read or don’t want to read, that it is alienating people who do read and do want to use its services. Who aren’t there to play Facebook games or take out a DVD. The NYPL is alienating readers.

New York Public Library waste

Wi-Fi Reading Room. The words, they make no sense

This time around I won’t be signing the begging letters. I want the New York Public Library to stick around, but not in its current state. I don’t believe that in a tough economy where vital services are being cut, that money should be spent on an organization that has slashed its stock of older books to the point that many important volumes aren’t available anymore, even as in-library reading, but has lots of money to spend on laptops for all and DVD’s for people too cheap to get Netflix.

The purpose of a library is to make reading material available to the masses. Its purpose is not to be a teen hangout. There’s plenty of money going to afterschool activities already. Its purpose is not to let people play Mafia Wars, while books are shelved so far out of sight that you need a telescope to find them.

I will support the New York Public Library when it ends its war on books and becomes a reader-friendly environment again.

Ray Bradbury, Luddite

Around the time that internet became culture, the internet developed an odd relationship with Ray Bradbury. Bradbury’s books were still popular, but his unabashed opposition to the internet and ebooks made for some uncomfortable moments.

“When did Bradbury become such… well, such an old man?” Graeme McMillan at Time Magazine complained. Bradbury was never old or he was always old. This was who Bradbury always was and it was odd that anyone could read his books without realizing that.

His best known book was an attack on a society filled with technological entertainment. Fahrenheit 451 isn’t just a book about book burning, it’s a book about an America where everyone watches television because it makes people easier to control. Where the television is fully interactive and you can participate in the stories together with your friends.

You can make fun of Bradbury for talking about “internets”, but he saw MMO’s and social gaming coming and he didn’t see anything good about them.

Bradbury was enthusiastic about some kinds of technology. He was in favor of space exploration. The technology that he was suspicious of was mobile entertainment and communications technology. He disliked portable radios playing music, phones and surveillance equipment. He distrusted technology that dehumanized or diminished life.

Was Bradbury wrong about television and the internet? Kind of pointless to talk about it, since he didn’t use the internet and probably didn’t understand it. The internet has its own pros and cons, but Bradbury’s criticisms have been made by even its biggest enthusiasts. It distances us from people.

Bradbury’s cynicism about technology was more popular when it was fashionable to talk down television and worry about the reading culture. When the internet became culture, suddenly Bradbury was being treated like an “old man”. And that reaction justified his distaste for the medium.

Is Publishing an Author’s Short Stories Collection a Good Idea?

I’ve been reading through some short story collections by major Science Fiction authors and after a few volumes of that, I’m not so sure that these collections are even a good idea.

Why? Authors repeat themselves, reworking the same themes and ideas. The story that looks unique in a copy of Fantasy and Science Fiction or in an anthology about alien dragons or telepathic fantasy worlds or alternate history heroes, looks a lot less unique when it’s sandwiched side by side with a dozen others with the same author’s perspective.

For the “Where do you get your ideas” crowd, it can be interesting to see that Anderson’s Goat Song is a reworking of the same themes and ideas as Queen of Darkness and Air (wielding archetypes to manipulate people, a war between technological order and chaos using myth, etc) but it’s also somehow disappointing.

Magazines and anthologies bring together different approaches on a theme. John Campbell used to hand out the same idea to different writers to see what emerged. But one writer reworking the same ideas can feel stifling after half a dozen stories.

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