21 October, 2012

Fifteen Life Lessons Prison Has Taught Me

  1. Never share anything with anyone unless it’s something you’re prepared to lose.
  2. Privacy, like joy, is a privilege, a precious resource.
  3. Given sufficient hunger, even a taste for something like pickled beets can be acquired.
  4. The criminally minded have a disproportionate statistical likelihood of really, really hating cats.
  5. A disturbingly high number of men have a disturbingly low standard for personal hygiene.
  6. Computer access is not, strictly speaking, required for survival.
  7. Watching hometown news for glimpses of old stamping grounds is a sad, ineffectual way to preserve memories.
  8. It is possible to make watercolors from the dyes in the shells of M&Ms candies, as well as to make paintbrushes from #2 pencils and your own hair, but the results are never satisfying.
  9. That which you love most has the greatest potential to be your ruin.
  10. Where half of everyone claims themselves “innocent,” innocence is meaningless.
  11. The line between boredom and depression is razor-blade thin; finding purpose can save your life and make it worth living.
  12. How casually someone breaks their word is directly proportionate to the cruelty of their betrayal.
  13. The goals of toilet training are not standardized, and not everyone’s toilet training was devoid of subtle trauma.
  14. It’s an acceptable trade-off to spend several undignified moments being strip-searched every weekend, before and after a few hours spent visiting with good people.
  15. Victimhood is a choice.

11 October, 2012

The Dolorous Debut of Frankenweenie, and Other Sufferances

I wasn’t present for the 5 October opening of Tim Burton’s latest stop-motion animated feature, Frankenweenie, but I dearly wanted to be. Back row, center; 3D glasses askew from my lopsided ears; a ginormous bucket of popcorn rapidly emptying in my lap; a cup of Dr. Pepper — no ice — beside me, large enough to ensure at least ten missed minutes of the IMAX experience due to restroom trips; an expression of blank rapture on my face — I’d have waited in a line around the block to make sure all of this came true, because I loved the original, live-action Frankenweenie and find that even Burton’s worst output (I nominate the crushing disappointment that was his Planet of the Apes remake) cannot stem the effluence of enthusiasm I get for any new project he releases. The announcement of a new Tim Burton movie is one of those rare events with the power to turn me back into a seven-year-old boy.  

Oddly enough, I know of no other creator whose body of work is tied to so many firsts in my life. It was a Tim Burton movie, Batman, that I watched the first time I went to the theater alone. (I was eleven years old, not seven, but that’s hardly the point.) My first celebrity crush was sparked by a Burton movie I saw when I was thirteen: Winona Ryder, in Beetlejuice. The first DVD I ever bought was Mars Attacks!, his hilarious, underrated satire. Big Fish, with its plot that surrounds a son’s coming to terms with his father’s death, was the first film to make me cry. If these connections cast me in a certain light, I think I could do worse than for that light to be Burton’s signature bluish hue — the light of dawn and of twilight, and of forests in snowfall.

When I was young, mine was a downhearted soul. I read Poe by candlelight, “secretly” smoked clove cigarettes in my room while listening to Mozart’s Requiem all night, and thought often about the boundless iniquity of existence. The works of Tim Burton — his films as well as his illustrated storybook, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy — all but categorically focus on the travails of the outsider, the leper, the ugly duckling. You don’t have to meet Burton in person to understand that his was a childhood beset by ostracism, through which he’s still working, in ways. The stories he creates therefore seem made purely for himself. That they happen to resonate with those of us well acquainted with otherness is merely a byproduct, which we can call “success.” Burton’s creative output deals in the placid sadness of being alone, in the celebration of difference, in childhood’s innocent magic, in the often ill-fated clambering for acceptance, in the giddiness of unfettered self-expression — in short, all of the themes to which a weirdo like me would rise from his slouch and say aloud, “Yes, this is for me.” 

The seven-year-old boy in me did not get his ticket to the latest addition to Burton’s cabinet of curiosities. He did not get to stand in line, breathing the heady scent of popping corn, nor to find that perfect seat, all the way in the back of the theater, where he could feel comfortably out-of-the-way. He did not get to find out if modern 3D glasses make him as nauseous and headachy as the old polarized blue-and-red ones did. He did not get to find out how Victor and Sparky reunite and get on, in this retelling of a favorite tale. It’s a small disappointment, like Jack Skellington’s, in Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, when dense Halloweentown neighbors completely misunderstand Jack’s proposal for a magical Yuletide celebration, but what it portends is outright dejection.

07 October, 2012

The List: Reading July Through September 2012

Somewhere in the world, probably in an apartment ceiling-high with Robotech models, Doctor Who paraphernalia, or worn Del Rey paperbacks, sits someone who would respond with a derisive snort — if the question were deemed worthy of a response at all — when asked if it’s possible to OD on SF. (For the uninitiated, “SF” is “speculative fiction,” which itself is the blanket term for written works of sci-fi, fantasy, alternate history, and all points in between.) We geeks believe we have our addictions under control. Overlooking for a moment that I’ve had actual Star Trek-induced goosebumps, that I’ve unironically decorated a Christmas tree with officially licensed TNG starship ornaments, and that I’ve taken under serious consideration my onetime fiancée’s suggestion of a Las Vegas Star Trek Experience wedding, I think I know when I’ve had enough.

Even while continuing to focus on genre novels, I can temper my intake with a soupçon of nonfictional and literary sustenance. Take my previous three months’ reading as proof.

* * * * *

Michio Kaku, Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100
Not an especially engrossing read, but a useful one if you’re in need of a refresher on near-future science. Kaku, one of the fathers of string theory and the host of many science-centric Discovery Networks programs, interviewed dozens of futurists and fellow scientists before writing this eminently reasonable prediction about the next century’s beginnings. The result is as wide-ranging as it is scattershot. Being a hodgepodge isn’t the book’s failing, though. A hit-and-miss outcome is to be expected when explaining to a lay readership everything from DNA manipulation to terraforming.

The sci-fi novel I can’t shut up about writing is set in the late twenty-second century. A lot of the predictions Physics of the Future makes are invaluable to my project, in that they gave me a strong source from which to extrapolate even further ahead. Kaku’s book is full of interesting facts, and it works well as a sampler for any troglodytic reader who’s not moved his rock to peek out at the world of science recently. It also seems hastily written, with lots of repetitious phrases, several typos, and (here I go again) repellent cover art. The publisher, Doubleday, ought to have provided a man of Kaku’s stature a better editor. A qualified graphic artist couldn’t have hurt, either.

If you’re after a glimpse at the discoveries and innovations that will change the world, you could do far worse than to pick up Physics of the Future — it’s like a World’s Fair in book form. For your own good, though, avoid its short final chapter, in which Kaku tries his hand at writing a science fictional slice-of-life "story" that’s supposed to work as an overview of the predicted future but really only makes you wish the future would get here so you could be finished reading this thing.

John Clute, Appleseed
For years before making this novelistic 2001 debut, John Clute was a literary critic, as well as co-editor of the Hugo Award-winning Encyclopedia of Fantasy and Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. His work elsewhere won him the Pilgrim Award for lifetime contribution to fantasy and sci-fi scholarship. Or so I gather from this book’s dust jacket. I was away, for awhile, from what could be regarded as sci-fi’s galactic center — where all its heat and motion are — and hadn’t seen the name John Clute on anything until a few months ago, when Locus praised his more recent nonfiction book, Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm (which sounded sufficiently excellent to add to my wish list). What’s this Clute guy all about? I wondered. So I picked up Appleseed.

At it’s core, Appleseed is standard space opera: lone interstellar pilot of a one-of-a-kind ship gets wind of a lucrative contract job and ends up out of his depth when said job pits him against a powerful enemy consortium that wants what he’s got (though pilot has no inkling what that is), and a universe is saved in process. Ho-hum, except not really. Some tales rest in the artistry of their telling. One maxim that keeps popping up in Appleseed says, “Sacred is the new.” Clute set this story thousands of years in the future, therefore the settings, the technologies, the languages, and even the physiologies of characters are so foreign and new that his reader can’t help being a little awed by the spectacle. Prose-wise, Clute’s posthuman tale is thoroughly postmodern, setting the linguistic bar high, which only adds to the pleasant disorientation, as in:
He was a figurine of porcelain in a maze of light, one whose corridors darkened into the fluted coral chambers of a spiral staircase, which was the inside of a cornucopia tiled with a story, and which grew larger the further he climbed, and made the sound of an ocean, and lo! he was peering through the crown of a great Tree, for he had in fact been climbing upside down. Here are the roots of the Tree (a voice said in his ear), once made of time, now made of weather. Help (scoffed the voice) if you can, little marmoset. What big eyes you have! Tell me (said the voice, diminishing into the cackle of a crone) a story.
At times I became frustrated with the free-associative poetics and pined for some straightforward storytelling to let me know what the hell was happening. But I suppose that writing about the quantum world of simultaneous states — things existing in one form and that form’s opposite at the same time, like Schrödinger’s poor dead/alive cat — is difficult without ambiguity. I excuse Appleseed’s occasional excesses. Simultaneously, I also don’t.

Joe Haldeman, A Separate War and Other Stories
Haldeman’s career in sci-fi started in 1969, when he sold his first piece of SF, “Out of Phase,” to Galaxy. Another SF story he wrote around the same time eventually became an episode of The Twilight Zone. His novel The Forever War was critically lauded as a sort of rebuttal to Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Haldeman went on to win Hugo, Nebula, and John W. Campbell Awards, teach writing at MIT, and, after thirty-six years of publishing in the genre, release this fourth collection of stories. If I read anything of his, prior to July 2012, may I be forgiven for not remembering it.

The fact is, what little I’ve now explored of his work is as competent and thoroughly thought-through as it is unremarkable. But this is unfair of me. Certain stories in this collection — the title piece, the unrelated-but-similar “Finding My Shadow” and “Faces,” and all of his two- and three-page works — are quite good. The stories here that don’t work for me have language, a central idea, or some combination of both, that leaves me underwhelmed. Too, his repetitive tropes get tiresome: must everyone in the future be gay? Haldeman’s stories move at a good pace, for the most part, but rarely let me shake free of the acute awareness of reading a science fiction tale. I was rarely in danger of losing myself in his myriad universes. Perhaps his reputation promised too much.

David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (editors), Year’s Best SF 15
This is more like it. Twenty-four stories representing the editors’ choices of the finest short-form speculative fiction to appear in any magazine, webzine, or anthology in 2009. I can’t speak to the quality of the rest, but that year’s sci-fi seems well represented.

Only three stories strike me as not belonging here — two of them being engaging-enough alternate-history tales, one being just plain cheesy — but the other twenty-one are truly outstanding and worthy of the distinction “best.” I especially like the work here by women authors, whose characterization and focus on the interplay of relationships lends them greater sophistication: Vandana Singh’s superlative “Infinities,” Mary Robinette Kowal’s touching “The Consciousness Problem,” and Genevieve Valentine’s ingenious, understated “Bespoke.” It isn’t often that I’m led to an author by an anthology, but several of those appearing here went on my list for further reading. I’m most excited about the aforementioned Professor Singh and Ms. Valentine, and Alastair Reynolds, whose dreamlike meditation on entropy, “The Fixation,” was inspired by the same 2007 New Yorker article that prompted a story of my own (far inferior to Reynolds’s, I freely admit). I also added the other sixteen volumes of Year’s Best SF to my must-read list, the expansion rate of which must now rival that of the universe itself.

Roger W. Shuy, Language Crimes: The Use and Abuse of Language Evidence in the Courtroom
I’ll save you thirty-five dollars and 205 pages of fairly dry reading about a small, highly specialized field. What forensic linguists do is systematically analyze the language in recorded video and audio evidence, in criminal cases, then share their findings with juries (or at least advise the lawyers who hired them to study the recordings). It’s a nuanced process. This becomes evident when you consider that forensic linguists are called in when cases — indeed, people’s lives — hinge on whether parties’ definitions or understandings of a phrase, or even a single word, are the same. (Examples cited in Language Crimes show that two people having a conversation can have radically different definitions of promise, it, him, or even kill. Try to remember that, next time you speak ill of an ex-lover.) Shuy covers matters of bribing, perjuring, threatening, admitting, promising, testifying, and questioning — in the process laying bare some shocking and not-so-shocking misconceptions about how language is used.

Lawyers, judges, true-crime addicts, and the insatiably knowledge-starved may find Language Crimes a worthwhile read. Other than confirming that a forensic linguist’s help with my case would be beneficial in proving my innocence (and confirming my hard-won impression of America’s judicial system as a theater of pomposity, willful misunderstanding, and cynicism), this book didn’t do much for me.

Edwidge Danticat and Robert Atwan (editors), The Best American Essays 2011
The day I checked out this installment of the always-excellent Best American Essays series from the prison library, I was joined at “the nerd table” by one of my usual sexagenarian cohorts. (“The nerd table” being what we call wherever we sit together to thumb through the communal issues of Popular Science and Discover.) He spotted this book atop my stack, picked it up, and mused, “Well, well, well. What have we here — essays?”

A brief perusal followed. He read off titles. “‘Topic of Cancer,’ ‘Grieving,’ ‘What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?’ Wow, this is some morbid shit.”

Who was it who posited that it’s impossible to produce good literature about a happy man? In all fairness, though, this volume isn’t all metastasization, mourning, and murder — not by a long shot. Forget my acquaintance’s first impression; much of this book is transformative (Victor LaValle’s “Long Distance”), inspirational (Pico Iyer’s “Chapels”), edifying (Zadie Smith’s “Generation Why?”), and just plain funny (Christy Vannoy’s “A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay”), and I recommend this one as confidently and heartily as I do any other year of the Best American Essays series.

Neal Stephenson, Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing
When I read Stephenson’s cyberpunk epic, Snow Crash, my typically understated reaction was a dry “Oh, yes, I like this.” Inside, though, I was giggling and swooning like a preteen girl in line at the gate of a Ricky Martin concert (it was 2000, so this reference is actually timely). That novel read like hackers and VR and mirrorshades, all packed up in a matte-black carbon-fiber attache case expressly for my delight. Stephenson became my hero the way William Gibson had, eight years prior.

The bad thing about reading such a phenomenal book is that everything its author writes will be in silent competition with what has gone before. The three Stephenson novels I’ve read in the last twelve years lacked Snow Crash’s kinetic verve, and one of them, The Diamond Age, I thought was downright disappointing. Some Remarks is a different sort of book, so perhaps I expected less — or at least different. If Snow Crash is a briefcase full of bleeding-edge tech, Some Remarks is a two-wheeled carry-on. Its contents include articles written for Slate, Salon.com, and Wired, plus a couple of vintage cyberpunk stories and much miscellanea. Including a 117-page trek through the fascinating world of undersea-cable laying, which I thought was totally awesome, this book fulfilled my nigh-boundless desire for intellectual exploration and just-right doses of smartassery.

Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
There was a time when I was a card-carrying member of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Society — secular libertarianism’s cult of personality. Like the good little acolyte I was, I read anything and everything I could concerning the Randian ideals of rational self-interest, laissez-faireism, and objective morality, beginning with Rand’s novels (Anthem, The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged) and nonfiction (The Virtue of Selfishness, Return of the Primitive, The Romantic Manifesto), then branching off into tangentially related texts, from Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason to Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Somehow, though, I never made it around to The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress until now, a decade and a half after my Objectivist Society membership lapsed.

The 1997 Orb Books edition of The Moon declares itself “[Heinlein’s] classic, Hugo Award-winning novel of libertarian revolution,” but, besides some antiregulatory talk and a few barbs aimed at collectivist commies (it was written in 1966, after all), The Moon is more about freedom from tyranny and class exploitation than about anything Rand would have put her name to. First and foremost, the book is an adventure about a former Lunar penal colony’s revolt against Earthside controllers, which features plenty of fast-paced subterfuge, a little rioting, a smidgen of bawdiness, and only a dash of Heinlein’s notorious sexism. Sixteen years ago, I’d have been disappointed by The Moon’s lack of didacticism. Today I think it’s one of the best things Heinlein ever wrote.

Neal Stephenson, Reamde
It’s a brick. It’s a book. It’s both. Boo.