Wiped Out

cartwipeThose of you using those free antiseptic wipes from dispensers outside grocery stores so that you will not expose yourself to cooties when you get your carts, please cut it the hell out. All you are doing is confirming to the rest of the world that America is a paranoid, germophobic, xenophobic culture.

More important, you’re helping to quickly breed even more drug-resistant bacteria, and helping to create less germ-resistant human beings. So with every little wipe you are a traitor to your race, and I hate you.

Alas, Babel Clash

My two-week stint as a guest blogger on the Borders SF site Babel Clash begins today. The topic:  Apocalypse in fiction & film. They definitely went to the right boy for this one (though I’m gonna lean more toward post-apocalypse, cuz how civilization goes into the crapper doesn’t interest me anywhere near as much as what happens afterward).

Join in on the fun!

Under the Dome and Over Between Us

domeDear Stephen,
After well over thirty years of learning, growing, and fond affection, it pains me to say that I believe our relationship must end. We have grown apart, and must go our separate ways. I will always treasure the heyday of our youth, when the world stood in mute awe at the glaring olympian light The Stand cast across publishing and the heady subgenre of postapocalyptic fiction. I stood by you in the Bachman days when you tried to see how much of what made you you was your style or your name, when The Long Walk could stand right up there with S.E. Hinton. I started getting nervous with Misery, not just because it was at least your third novel whose central character was a writer, but because of its murky undercurrents of resentment toward an audience that attained a nearly Pink Floyd level of directed anger toward the people who like you but who just don’t get it.

Perhaps most painful of all you followed Misery with The Dark Half, about a writer whose nemesis is literally himself. I stuck with you because I could see you trying to work it out, trying to find a way out of the corner that fame had painted you into, and even resenting it. Lately you’ve tried to disguise it in books such as Duma Key, by having a protagonist who is a painter and not a writer. I stuck with you because I’m quite aware I’ll never have the slightest idea what that level of fame must be like across every facet of daily life, and I simply admired that you continued to write prodigiously in the spotlight’s glare. Because you’re a writer in your very marrow.

With the challenge of publication itself well behind you, I could see you trying to challenge yourself.  Deliberately hamstringing yourself in order to see how much story you could still tell. So you released Misery, which takes place in a house, and Gerald’s Game, which takes place in a room, and Rose Madder, which barely takes place anywhere at all. I hung in there even while I felt as confined by these self-imposed limitations as your characters were.

You lost me a few times, but I’d invested in this relationship and I was rooting for you. You have been a startling phenomenon, our age’s Dickens, a one-man hurricane. People read you who don’t normally read much at all. I’d feel we needed a break and I got fine with not reading you (it was hard to watch the Gunslinger series slot into formula after the open-ended jazz of the first book; I think I can spot the moment you started reading not just Cormac McCarthy but All the Pretty Horses, and I couldn’t get past that). But inevitably I’d hear something that piqued my interest and pulled me back. And I would enjoy what it is I so like about you (your timing is the best in the business, your characters — with the exception of your writer protagonists, who interestingly are often depicted in a harsh light — are people we see in everyday life, not Everyman Symbols or invulnerable and unaffected comic-book heroes). But there would always be that gnawing familiarity of formula, predictability (I think I must be the only person in the world who called giant spider to predict the climax of It), contrived folksiness.

But I’m sorry to say that I think you have finally jumped the shark, and that, as of page 37 of the hardcover edition of Under the Dome, it is truly over between us.

I’d heard good things about this one, and any book that separates an entire town from the rest of the world (it’s been done before, necessarily more obscurely [cf. David Wiltshire, Genesis II]) and deals with the prevailing anarchy has a warm place in my heart before I’ve even cracked the cover.  I hit page 34 where a character on a tractor hits the invisible wall, flies off, and breaks his neck while the tractor idles beside him, and tried to regard the end-of-section line “Nothing, you know, runs like a Deere” as just a speedbump, something I could put behind me. A cuteness that should have been resisted because it detracts from the scene, reminds the reader that, after all, this is being written by somebody. It’s the kind of thing any writer could put in an early draft, and that any seasoned writer should remove on revision.

Then I hit section 5 on page 37.

We have toured the sock-shape that is Chester’s Mill and arrived back at Route 119. And, thanks to the magic of narration, not an instant has passed since the sixtyish fellow from the Toyota slammed face-first into something invisible but very hard and broke his nose.

Ignoring the fatty writing (wouldn’t “broke his nose against something invisible but very hard” have been a more [ahem] active voice and less redundant [we can figure out “face-first” from the broken nose, dude]?), could you give any louder, clearer indication than “thanks to the magic of narration” that you just don’t care about our relationship anymore? That you’re making it all up, and that you no longer care if I know that you’re faking it? Don’t you have enough consideration and professionalism anymore to feel obliged not to yank me completely out of the one-step-removed collusion that is reading? I feel I have paid my twelve bucks for a major studio summer movie and seen bad models dangling on wires, shadows of boom mics, actors glancing off-set. I can practically hear the typing.

Before you accuse me of being unfair, let me take pains to say that I’m fully aware that James Joyce, in Finnegan’s Wake, “brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” But he does it in the first line of the book, and by so doing lets us know what we’re in for. You pull this bait & switch on page 37, well after establishing your standard omniscient, third-person voice, so that this line just sits there like a turd in a punchbowl. This is the moment in the movie where I leave because I understand that I’m better off getting on with my life than getting angrier in a dark room as a lot of money is expended on the assumption that I am an idiot. This is the point, Stephen, where I walked out of your book. Walked out of all your books.

The truth is I’m not mad at you but disappointed in myself for coming back in the first place. Some relationships are about understanding that you will be manipulated. But when the manipulator takes great pains to remind the manipulated that he is not only being manipulated, but shoddily so, anyone with more spine than a gummi worm knows that it’s time to leave. That, from that point on, it’s his own damn fault if he lets it continue. Fool me twice, shame on me.

I realize that I am not really entitled to feel disappointed, because disappointment implies some expectation on my part that you shouldn’t necessarily feel obligated to fulfill. In that sense, then the horrible “dear john letter” cliche holds true:  it isn’t you, Stephen, it’s me. You’ll be pefectly fine without me, of course, and I will always treasure the experiences you have given me and the lessons you have taught me, and of course I wish you all the very best in your life and in your future endeavors. And of course I hope that your millions of other relationships continue to flourish.


Speaking at Podcamp Arizona

Having fun on the second day of Podcamp! I got to meet Mignon Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl) in person for the first time (previously we’ve traded emails and nodded in passing at hectic conventions), and I found her an utter delight — charming, personable, and very comfortable in front of a crowd. Her presentation on advertising products in podcasts was fantastic.

I’m recording my presentations and will make them available online after I’m back. Meantime, here are some video interviews I did yesterday.

Hang Up & Drive

cellphoneWatching people gesture and pose as they talk on cell phones as if the person they’re speaking with can see them, it’s clear to me that areas of the visual cortex come into play when people use the phone. Put simplistically, you’ve got X amount of gray-matter RAM, and a certain portion of it is given over to visualization (real and imagined). As people seem to imagine the person they’re speaking to on the phone (there are probably good evolutionary reasons for this), some of the space given over to direct visual perception is being occupied.

Now put that in a car and watch it go all over the road. We’re good at registering motion, but when things aren’t moving we tend to regard the situation as static. The visual input is cached (I’m still being metaphorical, okay?). The brain feels it’s okay not to pay attention too closely right now because nothing’s moving toward it, nothing’s threatening.

In a nutshell this is why I think talking on the phone while driving is a Bad Idea. It’s also why I think that “hands-free” laws for talking on the phone while driving don’t address the underlying hazard:  It isn’t the hands being occupied that’s dangerous (though certainly it comes into play); what’s dangeous is the mind being occupied. It doesn’t happen when a passenger’s in the car because you don’t have to picture him; he’s right there beside you, gesturing back at you.

I’d be interested to see the results of brain scans of people talking on phones (of course, god knows what happens when you introduce a cell phone into that — surely there’s some way to get around it). I think the results would bear out my wacky little pet theory that the visual cortex is engaged. Then I’d have sound, scientific reasons why people should hang the hell up and pay attention.

If someone wants to wrap himself around a lightpole, that’s his business, and we can at least be thankful if it happens before he can pee in the gene pool. But when someone’s distraction threatens to put me into a lightpole, I take it personally. I’m funny like that.

I’m off to Podcamp in Phoenix tomorrow morning. Looking forward to presenting and attending some presentations as well! After I’m back I can’t wait to write about last week’s La Jolla Writer’s Conference, which was simply amazing.

Melancholy Overtones

genghis_bluesI watched the documentary Genghis Blues the other night for the first time in a long time, and it freaked me out a bit to realize that there was an entire chapter of my life that I have hardly shared with anybody, that has influenced me greatly, that I count as one of the happiest stretches I’ve ever been through, and that exists as a strangely self-enclosed parenthetical in my life. I’ve met a surprising number of the people who appeared in that movie.

Like a lot of Americans who know anything at all about the country of Tuva and Tuvan throat singing, I was first exposed to this method of producing and modulating several notes at once when I saw an old episode of Nova called “Tuva or Bust,” concerning physicist Richard Feynman’s efforts to get to a Shangri-La-seeming country called Tuva in northern Mongolia.

On the Nova episode they played some excerpts of Tuvan throat singing and I was hooked. It sounded like a human being imitating a didgeridoo but singing flute-like melody above the fundamental drone. I’d never heard anything like it. At the time I was interested in the didgeridoo but had not yet learned to play it. I hunted down some CDs (this was just as the Internet was making things easily trackdownable), familiarized myself with some of the styles, and started teaching myself how to do it.

One day soon afterward I learned that Paul Pena would be playing a show at the central library. Pena had been the subject of an incredible documentary called Genghis Blues. He was a blind blues musician who heard Tuvan throat singing on his shortwave radio, taught himself Tuvan, taught himself throat singing, met Ondar in San Francisco at a show, and ended up traveling to Tuva to compete in an annual contest.

I went and saw Ondar & Pena and it was startling to realize the varieties of human ability. The show was incredible.

huunhuurtuYahoo Groups were a big new thing then, and I formed a group for Tuvan Throat Singing. It gradually got about 500 members, as I recall. Through this network I learned that a Tuvan group called Huun Huur Tu was going to be playing at McCabe’s in Santa Monica; one of the Yahoo grop members was associated with the tour. I met Huun Huur Tu and was invited backstage, and then was invited to their hotel.

Where we all got roaring drunk.

Tuva is a part of the Russian Federation, and Tuvans tend to speak fluent Russian. So when guests complained about the noise and the security guard showed up to tell us to keep it down, then turned out to be a Russian immigrant, he ended up staying and getting drunk with us. Then a group of ridiculously attractive girls from Russia who were staying at the hotel just showed up out of nowhere and flirted like crazy. (Could I make this up?)

At one point the band members asked to hear me sing. After hearing them, that was about the last thing I wanted to do, but I gave it a shot. Bopa kept putting his hand on my chest and saying “From here! From here!” I kept trying to figure out what muscles I had to use to make the sound come from lower in my chest.  Finally he said, “No, no — too much here.” And tapped his head.  “More here,” he said. And tapped his chest. Not more chest, Steve. More heart.

I learned more about art with those guys in one drunken night than I’d learned in all the previous decades.

I played the didgeridoo while the band huddled around me and sang. That was amazing. A musical earthquake. They freaked out when I began playing “Arte Sayir,” a famous Tuvan melody, as overtones on the didge. I’ve never heard anyone modulate overtones on a didgeridoo in a melodic way, but throat singing had taught me how.

The Yahoo Group grew stoopidly mystical and I pulled the plug on it. I saw Huun Huur Tu a few more times (and was delighted that my wife, an amazing composer, got to meet them), but after I got into DJing and dance music I kind of drifted from overtone singing and that community. That one, planetary-alignment night all came back in one unalloyed rush while I was watching Genghis Blues. Drunken huddling and delicate melodies over beautiful earthquakes. A hand on my chest:  More heart.

It was one of the most fun nights I’ve ever had.

Ondar on Letterman:

I want this played at my funeral:

Mysterious Galaxy Signing

signing01The signing at Mysterious Galaxy went quite nicely. Besides signing copies of Elegy Beach and Ariel (old and new), I blathered endlessly about the writing of the books and my approaches to writing in general, and answered some great questions (my friend Tom Morgan showed up and grilled me mercilessly — I can’t wait till the tables are turned).

The staff at Mysterious Galaxy Books were wonderful and the store is the kind of specialty bookshop I’m sad to say you just don’t see that often anymore.  If you live in the San Diego area, I can’t recommend them enough. We hadn’t even gotten underway and I was talking to MG employee Samantha Wynn about Burning Man and DJ gigs as if we’d known each other forever.

I’ll be seeing some of the MG crew again in a few days when I teach at the La Jolla Writers Conference, as MG is the book supplier for the conference. Woo hoo!

Ladies & gentlemen, due to circumstances beyond our control -- Steve Boyett
Ladies and gentlemen, due to circumstances beyond our control -- Steve Boyett

One really great surprise: Greg van Eekhout, whom I’d run into at World Fantasy Con, showed up. Greg was a talented student of mine when I used to teach at UCLA Extension, and now he has published a bunch of stuff, including his most recent YA novel, Norse Code. It’s been wonderful to watch his career develop and his star rise. He’s also a great guy. I just wish he’d have the consideration to age along with the rest of us. He doesn’t look a day older than when he was in my classes, and I think that’s extremely rude of him.

With Ken Mitchroney, my buddy pal!
With Ken Mitchroney -- my buddy pal!

I was also delighted that Ken Mitchroney, my buddy pal since the Early Impecunious Period, showed up with a crew of animators and ne’er do wells (if that isn’t redundant). I’ll blog about Ken one day but it’ll be tough: he’s had such a full life, and has accomplished so many things in so many different fields, that he deserves a book, not a blog post. (Director, storyboard artist, comic book artist, race-car driver, pinstriper, custom car & trike builder, artist & advisor to Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, railfan & antique train restorer, official cartoonist and logo designer for the Oakland As & the Baltimore Orioles — and that’s just on Mondays. He also took a great shot of me for the author’s pic on the recent books — and a good shot of me is a bigger accomplishment than all the other stuff put together.)

Great question -- I'll have my secretary IM you about that.
Great question! I'll have my secretary IM you about that.

Ken dragged along his friends & Omation Studios coworkers Woody Woodman, Hayley Kohler, Tom Morgan, and Paul Claerhout.  The latter two I met when I wrote interstitials for The Ant Bully at DNA Studios in Dallas. One-man peanut gallery and curmudgeon-in-arms John Field, whom I’ve known since the Late Salacious Epoch, threw zingers from the seats.

Paul wanted his notarized, too. Jeez.
Paul wanted my signature notarized, too. Jeez.

It was the first such event I’ve had in a long time, and it felt great to have old friends there.

Paul, Tom, me, Hayley, Woody

(all pictures by Ken Mitchroney)

Let the Games Begin

card2I promised myself this blog was going to be an ongoing series of essays and conversations on a variety of topics — writing, science fiction & fantasy, authorship & intellectual property in the 21st Century, the remix as metaphor for the art of our age, occasional reports on events and the status of books & various projects. What I promised myself it would not be is a billboard for me and my work. We already get more than enough spam in our lives without me adding to the heap, I think.

But. I just didn’t anticipate was how crazy the week of Elegy Beach’s release was going to be. I hope you will forgive me if I just yield to the inevitable this week and report on what’s going on with Elegy Beach. (I have no report on World Fantasy Con because there’s simply nothing to report about it.) I’ll get back to our regularly scheduled programming after the weekend, I promise.

Here’s the latest:

  • My essay for John Scalzi’s The Big Idea
  • The Book Smugglers interview with me
  • The Book Smugglers review of Elegy Beach
  • Cory Doctorow’s review of Elegy Beach on Boingboing
  • Signing & launch party at Mysterious Galaxy Bookshop in San Diego tonight at 7:00 PM