Saturday, January 21, 2017

A New Heuristic?

I decided to try a new author. I went with "London Falling", by Paul Cornell, 2012, 432 pages. A team of London police detectives get The Sight and begin policing supernatural happenings in London. Then followed this with book 2 in the Shadow Police series, "The Severed Streets", 2014, 416 pages, and book 3, "Who Killed Sherlock Holmes", 2016, 368 pages. The 1st 2 had been on my iPad for a while.

Cornell is noted as having written several Dr. Who episodes for TV, and also having done comic books. He writes well. It is interesting that the books are written as British books - lots of British/London slang and cultural references. The "define" function in the Kobo eBook reader did pretty well with the slang.

The books are mostly well paced, but, in the middle of the 1st book, I was really reminded of comments by author Walter Jon Williams, all of whose stuff I have read, in a recent blog post titled "Padding". Basically it talks about how the many comic book series now on TV, as good as they are, still wind up padding episodes in the middle of the season to stretch the main story arc out. I 1st remember "X Files" as having a long story arc (the aliens) broken up by episodes of unrelated or minimally related investigations. That seems to be the model a lot of these shows follow now. Some of those unrelated episodes I think I agree can definitely be characterized as padding, particularly when they do a cutesie episode, or a Christmas episode, etc.

I think I went through "Jessica Jones" pretty quickly. "Luke Cage" I got bogged down but did finally finish. "Daredevil" I got bogged down in the 2nd season but finished it. "Arrow" I did maybe 3 seasons with many starts and stops. "The Flash" I think I am current at 2 seasons. "Agents of Shield" I got totally bogged down in the 3rd or 4th season, despite their doing The Inhumans, of whom I was a fan back when they were in Fantastic Four comics. "Supergirl" and "Legends of Tomorrow" I still have going for me - I have not started watching.

There are so many of these out. The scripts, acting, and production values are all surprisingly good. It's funny how that is true, when there are so many network shows, say all the "CSI" shows, that strike me as standard, formulaic, lame TV shows, that could have been made 30 years ago.

But as good as this new stuff is, there is just too much of it. All the years I have been a sci fi and a comic book fan, and now it is an embarrassment of riches - so much content, so little time.

So, how to filter? I think my new heuristic is: if a writer writes for TV as well as books, then don't read their books. Their writing reads like TV, and it will probably eventually wind up there.

Normally I watch TV in the (late) evenings when I am too tired to read. So the more "comic-booky" stuff is good then.

Getting back to the Cornell books, the 1st I thought dragged in the middle, but reached a satisfactory conclusion. The 2nd got into some metafictional stuff - Neil Gaimann is a character??? The 3rd is metafictional and multimedia. We're back to Sherlock Holmes again - whom I had just encountered in Dan Simmons' latest. Part of the plot of the 3rd Cornell is that weird Holmes stuff is being caused by the fact that all 3 Holmes TV series are simultaneously filming in London. Ha ha, no denying it, Sherlock Holmes is really way up there in the current zeitgeist.

This one really reads like a TV show episode. The 1st chapter is a teaser, of the team carrying out an operation not particularly related to the main plot of the book, and making Star Wars jokes. At the end of the 3rd one, the local action has been wrapped up, and we've learned a little more about the Real Bad Guy, but they are in no way close to resolution. So I have no idea how many more books this series is going to go for - just to get 1 bad guy.

I notice these are getting shorter: from 432 to 416 to 368 pages. When you really think about the content, I think these should be like 200 pages. Each of the "Amber" novels by Zelazny and comic book type stuff like Moorcock's "Elric" and other series were all about this length. I always thought these felt "comic-booky", which Cornell does not so much. Cornell noticeably spends a fair amount of time featuring the main characters' spouses or significant others - I think standard in modern writing. So is this "superior character development and improved production values" or "padding"? For this kind of content, I think I'll vote for the latter.

Still, I'll read a few more in the series. Hopefully he will wrap it up by then.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017


Still in denial. Last weekend I was visiting with an older (81 YO) neighbor, who I had talked with several times since the election. This time the discussion turned to the media - of course Faux News was on the TV - and politics, and I got up and left. I am still not coping very well.

1st up, "Time Travel", by James Gleick. 336 pages. I read this in hardback. It's a pleasant and fairly quick read, exploring the nature of time and the history of the concept of time travel, which Gleick posits was unknown before H. G. Wells' "The Time Machine". In the end tho, there are no real conclusions, beyond the fact that we have all become experts on time travel, time loops, etc., thanks to movies like "Groundhog Day", "Terminator", "Looper", etc.

Next, Dan Simmons latest, "The Fifth Heart". 617 pages. I happened to notice this in Joseph-Beth when I was buying Christmas presents. I bought it in trade paperback. I found this cover blurb really interesting:

Holmes explains that his powers of deduction have led him to a shocking conclusion that he - Sherlock Holmes - is a fictional character.
Oh boy, metafiction! But Simmons doesn't really do much with the idea. It appeared that, aside from some carryover characters from the Holmes canon, including Professor Moriarty, Irene Adler, and Colonel Moran, most of the characters are real historical figures, primary among them the novelist Henry James who somewhat fills in for Dr. Watson. Others include Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Teddy Roosevelt, Clarence King, Henry & Clover Adams, John & Clara Hays. James and I think Twain both wonder if, given that Holmes is a fictional character, that makes them fictional characters too?!?!? Kind of cute, but it really doesn't go much of anywhere. Meanwhile, the main plot moves along well, but isn't really that compelling - plus I kept waiting for the metafiction aspect to jump in. Still, an enjoyable read.

I really don't trust Simmons anymore since his right-wing-dog-whistle-filled "Flashback", which I reviewed here. Does he relate Teddy Roosevelt's white supremacist views with relish? Why relate them at all? Was he as enamored of the British class system as it seemed to me? Manservants, FTW? It has diminished my enjoyment of his excellent writing to have be all the time wondering if I am smelling right-wing, feudal bullshit.

Next, "The Moth", edited by Catherine Burns, 410 pages. The Moth is an organization that has been promoting storytelling for 15 years via live shows, NPR broadcasts, and podcasts. (My oldest daughter Erica says this is one of her favorite podcasts.) This book is 50 stories representing some of the best of the 1000s they have produced. There is an interesting foreword by the founder, George Dawes Green, telling how he was trying to recapture his memories of listening to true stories on the front porch when he was growing up in Georgia. The description of how they figured out how to make it all work is also interesting.

I read ~1/2 of the book. Some of the stories are more moving and poignant than others; all are interesting. But I was getting the feeling that the stories would be more enjoyable if read in small doses. We used to call that a "bathroom book", like a book of Joe Bob Briggs movie reviews. Read 1 while sitting on the pot. They are mostly 5-10 pages, perfect! So I set this book aside, to read intermittently.

When I was reading "The Fifth Heart", I noticed that I had missed Dan Simmons prior novel: "The Abominable". 688 pages. I checked out the ebook from the public library, and had a pretty good reading experience with the Overdrive reader. It was browser-based, and was some very nice, trouble-free JavaScript code.

The story is set in the 1920s and is primarily about an expedition to Mt. Everest. It somewhat follows the formula of Simmons' "The Terror" - historical foo with some weird supernatural stuff thrown in - but with some significant differences. From a few Wikipedia searches, the main characters appear to be mostly fictional. There are some real historical figures thrown in as well. The book moves along well and has an exciting if perhaps cliched conclusion.

Re the right-wing, feudal bullshit watch, several of the characters are British nobles, and we get descriptions of the fantastic manor homes. But I won't judge Simmons too harshly for that. British-nobility-love seems engrained in American culture overall - for example, "Downton Abbey", and the desire to play serious dress-up. I will continue in my quest to wear casual clothes wherever and whenever I can.

I had thoughts re, these beautiful homes filled with art, lots of which are probably tourist attractions now, could they have ever been created without feudalism, without the 1% to act as resource concentrators? (Religion seems to have been the other major resource concentrator, as in medieval cathedrals.) My initial answer was, no, probably not. But then I thought, what if capital had been distributed equitably throughout history? If artists had a basic income equivalent, they could have created what they wanted, rather than what their wealthy patrons wanted. How much more great art would that have resulted in? But, up until 50 years ago or so, there probably was little enough capital overall that a more equitable distribution would have still left everybody pretty poor.

Despite the current political victories for the old lizards and their thinking, I am still hoping that capitalism has indeed done its job as Keynes thought it would, that there has been enough capital created that we can move to a world of sufficient abundance for all, despite the old lizards.