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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.

Endless Blue by Wen Spencer book review

I would like to say that Endless Blue isn’t furry porn, but I don’t really believe it myself. What looks like another post-Ringworld space opera sludges down into character studies that read like bad fanfic with all the emotional drama involving sex between humans and a variant genetically engineered type of human that for some unknown reason has fur and a tail and catlike behavior.

Endless Blue might have been passable as an average enough space opera with different races all ending up in a strange place when their warp engines malfunction. This kind of Ringworld meets Riverworld concept had possibilities, especially since the place they land is mostly water with flying continents up above. But Wen Spencer doesn’t really bother building the world or the realworld problems, except on the side in between the furry fanfic. Which means that if you’re not into that sort of thing, there’s not that much to read here. Halfway in I was skipping every other page and just reading for the story, and around the furry sections, but then Endless Blue tumbles into some ridiculous business about the whole thing being a mission from god who left a box on one of the continents that can end the war. This wouldn’t have been too terrible if it had been a little more consistent with the earlier material.

I don’t know what Baen was thinking, but then I don’t know what their ads are thinking. The back ads offer a James P Hogan collection on science to anyone who likes to read about science. I guess if you’re interested in science then you’re an excellent target demographic for someone whose idea of rationalism is Holocaust denial. Back to Endless Blue, there’s room for all sorts of people to write what they want and if there’s a bestselling fantasy epic built increasingly around the author’s fetishes (and no I don’t mean Gor) then maybe Endless Blue isn’t illegitimate. But maybe it should also be marketed as what it is. You could read the first books of Wheel of Time and maybe even the later ones without being on board, but Endless Blue focuses on one thing alone and sets up the universe so that it revolves around that topic.

Everything Wrong With Stephen R Donaldson’s Covenant Books in One Sentence

“In con­trast, the grass stains on her jeans had nev­er felt so fa­tal. They dragged at her steps like omens or ar­cane stig­ma­ta.”

Against All Things Ending

This probably isn’t the worst line in the book, people make lists of those, but it also captures the slow degradation of the Covenant novels until they reach this level of complete ridiculousness.

The grass stains on her jeans felt fatal? Seriously. The original three books for all their emotionalism still worked somewhat as high fantasy, and the next three books, aside from the ridiculous One Tree, worked on some level despite the extended therapy sessions. But the last three books are all One Tree. They’re not about anything except the characters agonizing and the characters are running out of things to agonize about.

Donaldson has gotten to the point where “the grass stains on her jeans had nev­er felt so fa­tal” makes sense to him as something you would want to put in a book instead of an emo song. The last three Covenant novels starring Linden are just completely indefensible. Maybe they were all hard to defend, but finally Donaldson took everything wrong with The One Tree and focused on getting it even more wrong. And there’s no point to it even.

The original books were somewhat compact, but here it takes an entire chapter for Covenant and Linden to go somewhere after he’s first summoned. Every character’s expression and interaction with other characters is described even when they don’t say anything every few pages. It’s like somebody describing a play to a blind guy and it’s so repetitive and irritating that there aren’t even words for it, except maybe carious frangible sequestery.

I’ve barely gotten three chapters into Against All Things Ending and I’m already sick and tired of it.

Ruth Rendell

Sometimes you pick the books you read, sometimes the books pick you when you’re in a place with limited available reading material. I’m obviously not the demographic for Rendell’s books, but still picking up a copy and seeing all the praise for it, from reputable publications calling her the greatest living available writer ever, I expected something… better.

Rendell isn’t a bad writer, but there was nothing in Not In the Flesh, that half the contributors to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine or Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine couldn’t plop out annually. And looking at the list of Rendell’s novels, that seems to be what she does. The Wexford novels are obviously phoned in. Not in the Flesh is a novella fleshed out a little with a female genital mutilation story that has nothing to do with anything else, except that it’s an issue the author cares about.

The Kate Atkinson novel I read afterward was not only about a dozen times better, it read like the author had put some work into it. Rendell doesn’t. The outcome of the case is obvious. The clues pop out at you from the background material. An aside describing a ring means that the ring will become significant. When Rendell goes on about a ring on another character’s finger given to her by her murdered boyfriend, the connection between the two murders becomes obvious. Similarly when she goes off on a rant about a writer’s religious novels and points out that one stands out, it becomes obvious that the novel was stolen and that explains the first murder. Anyone with half a brain knows the ending 100 pages before the plodding Wexford finally gets there. All this is lazy writing. Rendell could probably do better. She doesn’t bother. And these things apparently sell well enough that she doesn’t need to.

All fair enough. What I was less prepared for was the weirdly dogmatic political correctness and the sheer hatefulness of some of it. It’s not that I disagree with her, so much as the first 100 pages felt like being shouted at shrilly by someone on a train. Every few pages there’s some petty mini-lecture. I’ve read Henning Mankell. His politics are there, but he doesn’t relentlessly beat you over the head with them. Hannah Goldsmith becomes unbearable a few pages in, and it’s unrealistic that a junior officer would even be bullying a superior officer over such petty things. But after the first 100 or so pages, Rendell levels off and focuses her politics on a sideline about genital mutilation that has nothing to do with anything. The homophobic character sketch of Greg, is an odd choice for a woman who relentlessly lectures on bigotry.

It’s the hatefulness that’s unpleasant. Whether it’s through the eyes of Wexford, a middle aged male inspector or one of his subordinates, the descriptions are oddly hateful and when it comes to women, catty. They’re not plausibly those of Wexford. And they clash with the tone. The bias also makes the mystery much less of a mystery. You can tell the villains by how hatefully Rendell describes them or how much of a tear she goes on over them. Her rant about Son of Nun makes the final culprit obvious. It’s sloppy, but again Rendell clearly doesn’t care.

Bad Introductions

First a collection of A.E. Van Vogt stories with a rambling introduction by Hal Clement, who mentions senility and spends too much time telling us why A.E. Van Vogt wasn’t much good. Then a reprint of Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+ with an introduction by Jack Williamson who once again spends most of it telling us why Hugo Gernsback wasn’t much good.

The specific criticisms aren’t worth arguing with, because they’re obvious. Gernsback wrote Ralph 124C 41+ in 1911. A.E. Van Vogt’s stories mainly came from the 40’s. Gernsback was trying to predict future developments in 5 centuries using 1911 and some 1925 science. A.E. Van Vogt was writing pulp wrapped around some of the less plausible ideas of the day about human development and culture. He wasn’t trying to write hard science.

Jack Williamson ridiculously claims that techno-optimistic futurism was impossible now that the Cold War was here. A ridiculously self-pitying attitude. Especially when you consider that WW1 with its poison gasses, submarines and fields of dead didn’t kill techno-optimistic futurism.

What annoys me is that Asimov, Heinlein or Clarke wouldn’t get this treatment. An introduction to a collection of their stories would be worshipful. It wouldn’t harp on their faults. Because why bother? Who buys a book to read about the shortcomings of the author. So why do it with Van Vogt or Gernsback, the latter certainly doesn’t deserve to be dismissed as an ignorant fossil from some crazy time when people thought technology was a good thing. There’s a mixture of embarrassment and condescension here. But considered from the vantage point of 2111, do you really think any modern day novel’s science or viewpoint would stand up too well to scrutiny?

Has the New York Public Library given up on books?

I went into a public library yesterday and there were no books at all on the first floor. There were shelves and shelves of DVD’s. Shelves of audio books. Shelves of magazines and an entire section dedicated to reserved books. But to find any books to browse, you had to go up to the 2nd floor. That was the first time I saw it this bad, but it wasn’t completely new to me either.

Lately I’ve been seeing libraries pushing books to the side. In many libraries, even new books sections have been pushed aside to make way for DVD shelves and Reserved books sections. Both are strange, because the DVD market is flat and DVD’s will be completely gone in a few years. And getting rid of new books to make way for reserves is like a store wiping out its display shelves for browsers and replacing them with material that was already pre-ordered. It’s one of the worst screw ups possible. Audio books are almost as strange, how much of a future do they have, when most people listen on their media players, and there’s hardly any market for portable CD players.

This can’t be blamed on budget cuts. Not when libraries are lending out laptops to users. It’s a perverse way for libraries to try and remain relevant because they think no one reads anymore. At least not printed books. And if no one reads anymore, than who needs libraries. It’s a valid argument, and a stupid one. Are we really going to spend millions of dollars maintaining the equivalent of Blockbuster as a public service? I don’t think so. The library is less relevant than it used to be, but it’s not irrelevant unless those who run it make it so.

The Vampires Have Officially Won

My feelings on S.M. Stirling as a writer have always been mixed. There’s potential there, but he’s stuck in the same ghetto, writing the same Military SF plots in different settings. The Draka novels were interesting, until the last one. The Emberverse was mostly a waste, but still different. In the Court of the Crimson King was a bold and successful return to the spirit of the pulps. But you know what sells now? Stories about girls seduced by monsters. Twilight. And by all appearances, Stirling wrote his own Twilight novel.

It’s incredibly depressing to see all the supernatural detectives choking up the Science Fiction section. But this is actually worse. Because Stirling is capable of better. Instead he switches out vampires for werewolves and writes something like A Taint in the Blood to market to an older version of the Twilight crowd. Does the man actually need the money this badly. I know he’s done Terminator novels, and merchandising books are low, but this is worse. This is developing your own derivative merchandising book. In a market overcrowded with books like it. Or sorta like it.

From Publishers Weekly

Stirling (The Sword of the Lady) launches a new series with a messy and unappetizing mix of well-worn monster tropes and excessive sexual violence. The ancient, powerful, and sociopathic Shadowspawn have always lived among (and interbred with) humans. When Adrian Brézé, the one Shadowspawn capable of resisting his violent urges, discovers that his ex, Ellen, has been kidnapped by his evil twin sister, Adrienne, he begins a war against his own kind. Adrienne repeatedly rapes Ellen, who endures using psychological techniques she developed during childhood abuse, as she prepares her own political machinations. Stirling hits just about every cliché, from the grizzled vampire hunter and mentor to Adrienne’s pathologically devoted servants (who call themselves lucies and renfields). Stirling’s prose is competent, but there’s nothing new in his story, and few readers will have the stomach for the over-the-top sadism.

The cliche part is none too surprising. Or the rapes. Or that he’s managed to write another evil lesbian villain (is this one also blond?). Without reading this, I can guess that the Shadowspawn will be a dumbed down version of the Draka. A depressingly dumbed down version. Especially since this and Emberverse are his main focus now. Writers need to earn money. But doing something like this and dedicating it to…

To Jack Williamson, Fred Pohl, Sprague de Camp and other Golden Agers for inspiration; and Roger Zelazny and Fred Saberhagen.

Come on.

That’s like writing ad copy for the back of a box of Frosted Flakes and dedicating it to Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. What’s happening to Science Fiction? This is. It’s been swamped by everyone doing their own takes on Twilight and Jim Butcher. Frosted Flakes would taste better.

Odyssey by Jack McDevitt book review

Odyssey, like all of Jack McDevitt’s Academy novels takes place in some morbidly depressed futuristic version of the 50’s, in which Jack McDevitt  Odysseymankind has an interstellar drive, forcefields and AI’s, but doesn’t do anything but participate in retro musicals and read loud newspaper headlines from around the world.

Odyssey is really no different, except McDevitt doesn’t bother writing a plot that makes any kind of sense (or including an actual odyssey in it despite the title). In Odyssey, space travel is once again endangered because no one likes or cares about it. The Academy is struggling, and you can see why, because the spaceships are flown by AI’s and the pilots do nothing. And to prove it, the space expedition on Odyssey has everyone playing board games and talking for the entire trip, while the AI flies the ship. The expedition includes a 15 year old girl, Gordon McAllister an obnoxious magazine editor, Eric, the PR director, and Valya, a pilot who doesn’t really pilot, and at the end actually puts Eric in command.

The plot of Odyssey focuses around Moonriders, UFO like ships. But mostly the plot is really about Gordon McAllister, the kind of bad Mencken imitation that could only be played by Dabney Coleman in the movie version. McAllister’s main function is to make sarcastic remarks about everything and serve as the author’s voice. He also exposes the conspiracy behind the moonriders, which turns out to be a plot by space companies to trick the government into spending more money on space (boo! hiss! who wants to spend more money on space). Except then the moonriders actually do show up and blow up an outer space version of CERN.

This plot development makes no sense, because the moonriders launching an attack at the same time as the corporations were creating fake moonrider attacks is a completely improbable coincidence, that even a lazy author should try to explain somehow. But McDevitt doesn’t bother. And then McDevitt has the moonriders warn of the attack in a message to that 15 year old girl, whom of course no one believes. There’s no reason for her to get the message, rather than anyone on SpaceCERN, except to complicate the plot.

And just to make Odyssey an even worse mess, McDevitt seems to base the attack on SpaceCERN around September 11, complete with two towers being bombed, and then a giant fireball and smoke coming out. Except SpaceCERN is in outer space. Yes that’s how good the science in Odyssey is. That it has structures exploding in fireballs in outer space.

Finally since when McDevitt can’t think of what to do with the plot next, he has someone die tragically, that’s exactly what happens next. Dabney Coleman presides over a new Scopes trial. The 15 year old girl is still 15. Hutch once again goes off in a funk. And there you have it, another Academy novel.

Jack McDevitt is not Asimov or Heinlein

Jack McDevitt is not Asimov or Heinlein. He’s a decent writer, but he’s not a science fiction writer. And all the quotes claiming that he’s the rightful successor to Asimov or Heinlein, are clueless. Heinlein and Asimov actually worked during the 1950’s, and they would never have written Science Fiction novels set 200 years later, in which humanity looks exactly like it did in the 1950’s. Sounds like a no brainer, but that’s exactly what Jack McDevitt does in his academy novels. It’s 200 years later, and except for a few insanely advanced gizmos like AI’s, FTL and force field spacesuits (which never show up in any other application), humanity hasn’t changed much, since the 1950’s. Take the Gordon McAllister character, who publishes a magazine, battles against religion and has a personality straight out of Mad Men. The movies, musicals and books that show up in the Academy novels are the sort of thing people read and watched in the 50’s. At a time when newspapers are dying, McDevitt keeps making them the focus of reporting in his books. Culturally nothing has changed, even though the era his books are set in, should be as different from ours as 18th century was from us. But critics keep confusing 50’s retro from writers like McDevitt or Steele, with writers who worked in the 50’s and actually looked toward the future. And there’s no comparison.

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