Observations on science fiction, writing, life and whatnot

Thoughts

A new year, a new beginning … meh

So, the new year is 16 days old and by now you should be well along in your new resolutions.

Yeah, right.

Just another year, y’know. One more turn around the Sun, four more seasons come and gone. Same thing, year after year, the Earth spinning, the Sun making helium, the same old same old.

Animals don’t care. They live for the moment. Is it cold today? Is it warm? Is it breeding season? Is it time to eat? Is it time to be eaten? What’s that you say? A year? Crap, I have enough trouble getting from sunset to sunrise to sunset, I don’t need to be thinking about whether today marks a year from the same day last year. What is a “year” anyway?

And we’re not really back to where we were a year ago. An Earth year doesn’t come out all nice and even, there’s an odd fraction. That fraction ensures we don’t hit the exact same spot on this side of the Sun as last year. Plus, the entire Solar System and the entire galaxy are moving, so the spot we were on Jan. 16 2013 has gone way off in the stellar distance somewhere. That’s the factor most writers of time-travel stories ignore. Not only do time travelers have to aim for the correct time, they have to aim for the correct place. As in, Earth’s place on, say, Jan. 16, 1813. They might be spot-on in the time dimension, but they’re gonna find themselves in a spot with no solid ground. Or air to breathe. Or anything else. A situation much, much worse than that of the astronaut in Gravity.

We humans constructed this concept of a “year” so we could have a place to point to that is both the “end” and the “beginning.” Say good-bye to 2013 now shuffling off the stage, a creaky old man with a long, gray beard carrying his scythe. (OK, now just where did he get that scythe, anyway? The new year comes in as a baby in diaper and top hat, but no scythe. Is the old man carrying the same scythe as the original old man did lo those many billions of years ago? Or does the Old Man Time get a new one sometime during his year? From where? At what point during the twelve months does he obtain the scythe? Six months? When he’s old enough to carry it? Big enough? Six months is middle age, right? By July, his hair is going gray, arthritis is attacking his joints and his teeth are falling out. So is that when the Great Timekeeper in the Sky bestows the scythe upon the current year’s physical representative? Why a scythe? Well, look at the physical representative for death. He definitely uses his every day of the year. Same thing for Old Man Time. The cute Hallmark cards never show him using the scythe to slice off the previous year from the time stream in a bloody finale. No going back now, folks.)

A new year is a chance for new beginnings, or so we’re told, but it’s easier just to continue with the old, right? Change is hard. Stop eating, stop smoking, stop smirking, stop drinking, stop watching so much TV (except for — Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, NCIS, Downton Abbey, Mythbusters, American Idol: place your own show here). Just stop doing whatever you’ve been doing that’s harmful to you, then start doing the healthy things, the educational things, the kind things, the positive things. Make yourself a better person. Easy, no?

No.

Well, we all do share one accomplishment for the year: We’re still alive. No small thing, given all the ways that a single human life can be extinguished. Yeah, some of those resolutions are geared toward, y’know, reducing that risk. So when the completely arbitrary year of 2015 comes around, we’ll still be here. Hah! Another accomplishment!

The trouble with we humans is that our developed brains allows us to fill our lives with — stuff. Good word, “stuff.” (How many variations of coffee drinks are there at your favorite coffeehouse? How long’s it take you decide which one you want?) Often we find the best way to deal with “stuff” is simply letting it wash over us. (Like picking the same coffee drink every time.) It’s much easier, don’tcha know. (Yes, George Carlin had a terrific riff on “stuff.” I have expanded the meaning to include active things, not just the material things we stick on a shelf. “Stuff” covers it all.)

Oh, I know. These past couple of months I’ve been hit with lethargic ennui that has made doing anything of substance not difficult, particularly,  just … unimportant. My excuse is that things happen in life that forces delay, but that’s a poor one, no? Life happens to everyone and we all have to deal with it. Stuff (to use a more polite term) happens according to the gods, and we’re left to deal with the consequences. My way of dealing with it lately has been to pretty much let it slide. And we’re taught that “letting it slide” is not a good thing, though I at this point I could make a good argument in favor of it.

But, never mind. So, yeah, I decided enough’s enough. Did I decide it now because of the new year? It’s likely that I’ve fallen into that tired old way of thinking about “starting anew.” But I think one of the main spurs of this is that I remembered I owe a project to a friend, one I had committed to months ago. When I meekly asked if I had missed the deadline, he generously said I hadn’t, that a place was still being held for me as long as I did meet the deadline. So, there you go: Commit to a project for a friend to break the shackles of ennui.

Not that the end of last year was a complete null. I did complete a project on my own, but man,  it took forever. Now it’s out in the cold, cruel world hoping someone will take pity on it and give it a home. And pay me for it. Well, like so many of my other projects … we’ll just have to wait and see.

And then there’s the third project, which is on the cusp of being complete. This one was easier because it’s a collaboration with another friend and his friend, so there was plenty of incentive not to screw it up..

These last three paragraphs are very self-revealing bordering on self-pity. I usually don’t do this (in public) because I feel like private stuff should stay private (a polite way of saying “It’s none of your business”). I’m going public with this partly as a spur to get that one project done. I shall post the results whether success or failure and the one or two of you who read this can say either “That’s great!” or hold me up to public scorn.

Now there’s an incentive.


Into the Unknown, or a pleasant weekend at a Midwestern SF con

ConQuest 43 (theme: Into the Unknown) is history now and it lived up to its reputation as a friendly regional con that took place in a mostly convivial atmosphere.

I say mostly because it had the misfortune of being held during a hotel name switch. The con hotel used to be the Hyatt, but that company lost operating rights or however these things work and now the Sheraton has taken its place. And, of course, the new people have to put their mark on the place by putting their own their stamp on it. And the best place to make that statement is the front lobby, which was blocked off completely. This meant getting on the elevator, going up one floor to the mezzanine, walking to the opposite escalator nearly three-quarters of the way around the hotel and riding it down to the one tiny corner of untouched lobby for check-in. Once competed, the same journey had to be made in reverse in order to get back to the elevators that took you to floor, all the while dragging your luggage behind you like dead pets. (And grumbling – a constant chorus of muttered complaints could be heard in the back-and-forth parade of newly arrived and irritated hotel guests.)

Fortunately, I arrived too late to hear the cacophony of jackhammers tearing up the tiled lobby floor, but I heard plenty of complaints about that.

The con itself was a chance to see New Mexico friends such as Parris McBride, wife of George R.R. Martin (George himself being in the wilds of Montana) and Steven Gould (Jumper, Helm, Blind Waves, Wildside); SF acquaintances such Robin Wayne Bailey (Shadowdance) and Gardner Dozois (editor, writer) plus the chance to put faces to names I’ve seen over the years such as Sharon Lee and Steve Miller (Ghost Ship, part of the Liaden series of novels).

This con – and any con held this year, and maybe last year and the next – comes in the middle of the Great Upheaval in Publishing where e-books are coming up strong, panicking traditional publishers, who are doing some rash things in response. They’re afraid of the economic model that allows authors to go around them and make their work available to an audience directly. Many of the writers who attended ConQuest have had experience with e-books either as an adjunct to their print career, a second track to their overall career, or as their main career track. As Gardner pointed out, writers with a backlog of out-of-print titles should be taking advantage of e-book to get those titles back into print and make some money off of them. Steve Gould is one who has done so, and he says his e-book backlist is paying his mortgage. For every writer doing that, however, are several who aren’t because they don’t know how and don’t want to learn. Those tend to be older writers, but they’re hurting themselves. Writers with established careers have fans, who would like to see some of the old stuff again. Plus, e-books could bring in new fans for these writers.

The large traditional publishers have reacted to this by dumping mid-list writers (those who sell steadily but not spectacularly) in favor of those who sell millions of copies and thus earn millions of dollars. Gardner equates this to shooting oneself in one’s foot because the publishers spent all that time and money supporting the careers of these midlist writers, but by cutting them loose, they’re sending he author’s fans away, too. The author then can turn to e-books, continue sell to his backlist to fans with not a cent going to the original publisher.

Some writers are doing both, selling their books to traditional publishers while putting short stories, novellas or even novels on e-book sites. This puts printed copies on bookstore shelves while maintaining an electronic presence, sometimes through a small press. If done right, both methods feed off each other (that is, give the author more marketing presence).

The third category is fraught with uncertainty. This is the author who has no backlist, is perhaps just starting out, and puts a first novel on e-book sites. Because most people won’t have heard of him, the possibility of the book just sitting there is large. E-book self-published authors have no marketing staff behind them, no signing tours planned, no ads in printed or broadcast media (not that those help all that much). Word of mouth – readers telling their friends to read a book they like – is the best ad campaign, but a lone author has little unless he can get his friends to start the ball rolling. So why would anyone do it? Because he he’s got something to say and he knows he’s got a good story, well-written, professionally edited and formatted, so, despite all reasonable expectations being against him, he does it anyway. (Hang around here long enough and you might see something like that actually happen.)

The big problem with doing this is the author watching his beloved child sink into a morass of self-published dreck, never to be seen again. The only consolation is that traditional publishers often published dreck, too, and spent a lot of money doing it.

One worrisome item mentioned at the con was the aging of the attendees. Many fans started attending – and a lot of writers started writing – in the 1960s-’70s, so there was a lot of gray hair walking the hotel corridors. Getting younger folks to attend should be a priority of con planners, yet there seems to a be a reluctance to do this. Old canards about young people not reading cannot be used as excuses because it’s not true. It certainly isn’t graybeards and grayladies buying Harry Potter or the Hunger Games or Brian Selznick or any of the other successful juvenile authors. You must consider youth or your con will just wither away with the Old Ones.

So it was good to see ConQuest make an attempt with the con-within-a-con programming geared toward paranormal romance fans. As was pointed out, SF/fantasy and paranormal romance genres don’t overlap that much, but they still have some things in common. Inviting fans from other genres causes intermingling, which can lead to discoveries on both sides. The old SF/fantasy conventions might change because of this new blood (heh-heh), but change is good.

Long live the genres of any stripe.


Another circle, another year, more hope for the better

One more time, back where we started.

Well, we didn’t actually start here, but at one point, we were here, we went away, and now we’re back. Back to this point after a journey of 365.25 days, the periods marked by shadow and light that combined we count as “1” and add each increment until we reach the end.

Or the beginning.

Hard to tell with circles, sometimes.

Like most things humans think about, it’s all couched in convenience. For one thing, the the journey inscribed by Earth in its rotation isn’t exactly a circle. It’s an ellipse, an elongated circle. Circle, ellipse, who cares, one end meets the other and the loop is closed.

Still, even with that closed loop, we’re not back at the same point we hit a year ago. First, there are those pesky fractions. It means the origination point moves slightly each cycle, and every fourth time, an extra day is added, thus throwing the starting point further off. The sun isn’t just sitting in the same point in space, either. The solar system as a whole, Sun included, is moving through space as part of the Milky Way, a collection of planets, semi-planets, comets, asteroids, stars, pulsars, quasars and whatnot. All of that stuff is orbiting a central point like a giant pinwheel, with the probability that the central point is a black hole. The Milky Way itself is moving with other galaxies through space on, we’re told, a collision course with the Andromeda Galaxy. Plus, the Milky Way is part of a larger group of galaxies moving in some grand direction while at the same time generally outward away from a center billions and billions (as Carl Sagan denied he ever said) of light years away. And the universe itself, perhaps in some strange motion of its own, moving somewhere we can’t even fathom.

So the idea of the Earth returning to some point in space it had been before is, at best, unlikely. What we’re marking is one sort-of complete trip around our Sun, a cycle that began when the conglomeration of space debris left over by the formation of the Sun smashed and bumped its way into sort of a sphere and started moving in a path in accordance to a force called gravitation.

If the Earth didn’t rotate, if it kept one side facing the Sun at all time – the way the Moon does for Earth – and if it didn’t tilt and wobble in is orbit, the passage of time as we see it wouldn’t be so noticeable. (What would be noticeable would be one side roasting while the other freezing.) The rotating and tilting gives variation to the length of day – the time when sunshine is bathing the landscape in its warm glow – and night. When the planet tilts one way, the continents and seas get lots of sunshine and warmth, which we call “summer.” Then the planet, despite our fervent wishes, tilts back the other way, and the sunshine is decreased slightly each day until the nights are long, the icy cold blasts of wind and snow come out of the north (south for those of you on the other half of the planet). This is a scary time. If the tilt doesn’t reverse, all will be plunged into endless night. Humans gather at the solstice and wait and watch to see if the length of night slows … then stops … and finally reverses. Cause for celebration! Bring out the beer, the food, light the bonfires and push back the darkness and dance until you drop. The summer is coming, the warm days, time for new crops, new livestock births, time to shed those heavy winter furs. Another year survived.

That’s what we celebrate when the Earth reaches the approximate point it was in a year ago: another year gone, we’re still here despite whatever happened during the preceding 12 months. Survived as individuals, as families, as communities, as tribes, as nations, as a world of humanity. We hope for change in the new year; individual changes (lose weight, quit smoking, get rich), and societal changes (jobs for everyone, an end to hate, an end to war). However, there’s no magic from the completion of the cycle; it’s just another voyage through the zodiac. The desires and wishes are of human origin and as humans, we have to decide for ourselves what needs to be done. And then we have to do them.

You won’t find any answers here. You won’t even find suggestions on fixing things (though, like everyone else, have ideas on what “should” be done). All you’ll find here is best wishes from me to you and hopes that in the new year, nice things, and an occasional great one, happen to you, that the less-than-happy things are few and far between. We passengers of Earth are about to embark on another cycle around the Sun, and though it may be arbitrary, it still has meaning for us. May the sun shine on your path whatever the position of the Earth and may you have a Happy New Year.


Scorsese’s lyrical lecture on the importance of old movies

Of all of the three-D movies I’ve seen so far (granted, I haven’t seen many; dull, crummy movies are still dull and crummy no matter how many dimensions they’re presented in), two of the best are Avatar (the movie that really got the latest 3-D craze going) and Hugo (the movie that tells a story about one of the pioneers of movies by using the latest technology).

One of those movies looked terrific but had a weak story cribbed from dozens of previous sources. The other looked terrific and told a wonderful story based on an imaginative and intelligent children’s book.

Guess which is which.

This not a trick question.

Some people express surprise that Martin Scorsese would make a children’s film after making violent, adult fare such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. Why should this be a surprise? Scorsese is a storyteller; the skills are the same whether you’re doing films about mobsters or prize fighters or eccentric businessmen or Michael Jackson videos. Go take a look at Scorsese’s bio and see how many different types of films he’s had a hand in as writer, director, producer or occasional actor. This is a guy who loves movies so much he’s spearheading the effort to save as many old ones as possible.

The central story of Hugo is about the rediscovery of a pioneer of movies and some of the films he had made. Right up Scorsese’s alley.

The book also about redemption, remembering the past and struggling with the loss of family. Quite a plate for a book for children.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is no ordinary kids book, though. For one thing, it’s 534 pages, but saying it that way is quite misleading. There are pages filled with type, yes, but then many are filled with drawings, which often take over the storytelling. The book’s one chase scene, for instance, is told in drawings, and boy, does that save time and words.

The author, Brian Selznick – cousin to David O. Selznick, producer (Gone With the Wind, Rebecca, King Kong) – is both author and illustrator. Hugo Cabret is an orphan who possesses an automaton his father was working on until he was killed in a fire. An uncle takes Hugo in, teaches him how to wind the clocks at a Paris train station, then disappears. Hugo, in order to survive and keep out of the clutches of the station’s Inspector who wants to put him in an orphanage, takes over the caretaker duties. In his off hours, he tries to repair the automaton using parts he steals from a toy vendor. The vendor catches him, takes his notebook and threatens to burn it. Hugo appeals to the toy-maker’s ward, Isabelle, for help, and eventually they discover the truth about the old man. The automaton provides an essential clue, and, in the movie, it’s fascinating to watch the thing at work. This one, of course, is a special effect, but in their day, such mechanical marvels really did do some amazing things.

Scorsese, of course, tweaks the story a bit. In the book, Hugo and Isabelle refuse to tell each other the obvious plot points until it becomes annoying. The movie lessens the need for this, but it also leaves out Isabelle’s slamming a door on Hugo’s hand, thus preventing him from winding the station clocks, which fall behind, which leads the Inspector to figure out Hugo’s secret, who then captures him. In the movie, Hugo’s capture stems from a different set of circumstances, but in this case, the book is better.

The book’s drawings gives us glimpses of 1930s Paris and Hugo’s world in the train station, but Scorsese’s use of 3-D immerses us. There are the usual 3-D gimmicks, of course – a guitar neck sticking out, a wrench falling from a great height and into the viewer’s face, a pendulum slicing into the frame, a locomotive engine careening out of control and into the audience. (The latter recalls an early silent, black-and-white film of a train pulling into a station that caused audience members to duck and scream. The bit is shown in Hugo, causing a few chuckles from the “sophisticated” modern audience, including one who almost shouted “Look out!” to a woman who he thought was about to be beaned by a meatball during a 3-D trailer for Cloudy with Meatballs.)

Scorsese goes beyond these gimmicks. We see ceilings high above us, the massive walls around us. We’re jostling among the travelers hurrying to meet a train, a scene which turns to terror for Isabelle when she’s knocked down and nearly trampled; we feel each jab in her ribs, wince at the sight of a foot aimed at her head. Scorsese knows how to use 3-D as a device to tell an entire story, not just make us dodge the occasional object. The storyteller again, gently lecturing us about the past and why it’s important to save it while entertaining us using all the tools he has available to him. For instance, when the kids climb high into a clock tower and gaze out over 1930s Paris at night – yeah, that’s real movie magic.

(The movie also does a better job with period costumes and architecture. Note to Selznick: If you’re going to use drawings to illustrate stories in historical times, a little research helps with the verisimilitude.)

And who is the filmmaker pioneer the book and movie are about? Well, reviewers already have let that cat escape from the bag, but if you don’t already know, go read the book or see the movie. You won’t be disappointed, and you’ll actually learn something.

In an entertaining way, of course.


Welcome to my World

Here I am, another voice in the vast wilderness of the Net

Welcome to the website and blog of Terry D. England.

Who?

Oh, you know, just another guy who thinks he’s clever and smart and has enough intellect to be entertaining, informative and witty and thousands of readers with followers waiting with breathless anticipation as the next Golden Pearls of Wisdom drip from his keyboard.

Right.

I’ll likely to see two people a month, one who likely stumbled onto the site looking for English tea and crumpets. In essence, just one more voice yammering among the millions already out there.

So why do it?

Because I’m egotistical. Sort of. I find the idea a bit frightening, a bit intimidating. Put my words out for others to see, to ponder, to react to, to scorn? Have I taken leave of my senses? You bet. But I also style myself as a writer, so I’m supposed to put words out there. It’s just so unnerving, sending out those precious, vulnerable children out into the great unknown.

Actually, I’m hoping to let you in a little on what I’m thinking. (Just a little; you don’t want to know it all, believe me.) Whether the wider world pays any attention or not is another question. This won’t be a one-issue blog; indeed, it’s likely to wander all over the map. Society, culture, entertainment, people, whatever. No sports – not interested – and very little politics because in this polarized society I don’t want flame wars erupting on my site (though if something really egregious happens – and it will, it always does – I might, I say might, make a tiny comment or two). I can’t guarantee how often the posts will come, but I’m aiming for once a week. Even if it’s just “The weather was terrible here today.”

I will watch the comments and only the ones I approve will be seen. It’s my website, after all. There will be rules and my decisions are final. I am hoping to hear from thoughtful, the curious and the (relatively) sane so we we can discuss Serious Issues. Or argue over which are the better cartoons, Silly Symphonies or Looney Tunes.

Another reason for this is because I have something to sell (well, of course). Not much; my output is rather thin at the moment but I’m working on it (see the About and SF and Me tabs for more on that). I’ve posted a few short stories under the Short Tales tab, one published, three not, all accessible for free. Are they any good? I think so; after all, I did put them out there. Of course, the final say will be from you. (And if that’s not scary, I don’t know what is.)

I bill myself as a science-fiction writer, and one of the joys about the SF world is the people you meet, the writers, illustrators and fans. It’s a mutual support society, so I’ve added links to some I consider friends or colleagues on the page. You won’t find them boring; plus, they have a lot more works available. Check ’em out, check out the wide variety of written SF for challenging ideas, great stories and just plain good reading.

Like all new things, this is an experiment and a nerve-wracking time for a guy who generally sits quietly in the background. I like this system, though; I can post something then hide under the bed until I screw up enough courage to see what the responses are. Assuming anyone does respond.

Still, I look forward to this. Sort of. As Calvin once said to Hobbes, “Because it is man’s indomitable nature to scare himself silly for no good reason!”