Rethinking the Kindle

Tonight I was reading on my Kindle and I decided I’m not completely happy with it.  I love reading on the Kindle, that is, seeing the large print, reading screen by screen with a press of a button, and having a narrow line width to scan with my eyes.  What I don’t like about the Kindle is the Home directory.  I also discovered I no longer like reading Time magazine on the Kindle, although this might not be completely the fault of the Kindle.

For my personal use and taste, I’ve decided I like the Kindle best for reading a single book at a time.  The Kindle is great for reading on a book you’re hooked on and you’re ready to sit and do some serious reading.  I can read screen after screen with little eyestrain.  The Kindle is a comfortable magnifying glass.  Whenever I used to try to reading normal books and hold a magnifier it was never comfortable.  For me the Kindle has become a tool to make reading easier on the eyes.

I don’t like managing books on the Kindle.  The computer makes for a much better librarian.  I wished the Home page only had unread books on it, and I could hide all my read books in another directory.  Really all I want is to turn on my Kindle and start reading where I left off, so I’m not even sure I wouldn’t be happy leaving my library of books on my computer or on Amazon.

The whole thing about carrying 2,000 books around in one little device isn’t as interesting in practice as it was in theory.  In other words, I like the Kindle as a book replacement, but not as a library replacement.  The Kindle’s software and hardware interfaces are clunky when it involves more than reading.  PREV PAGE and NEXT PAGE are perfect concepts for reading – all those other buttons, not so much.

I could handle a much simpler Kindle, but I don’t know if my tastes would make other Kindle users happy.  Amazon should sell two kinds of Kindles – a streamline reader with few buttons, no broadband connection, and have it managed from a computer, for about $100, and then the more expensive Kindle with all the bells and whistles for $399.  I would be happy with three buttons: an On/Off switch, and a Next and Previous page buttons, along with a USB port.  Yeah, and it would need some kind of home button with a trackpad or other cursor selector device – but ultimately I’d prefer a touch screen.  I wondering if something like the iPod player control would work with ebook navigation. 

I’d like this simple Kindle to be super hardened so I wouldn’t be afraid of taking it places, include the bathtub or beach.

My 4gb iPod Nano can hold many unabridged audio books but if I put more than a few on it then it becomes a pain to find things.  My iPod and Kindle just need room for 1-3 books – at least that’s how I feel.  I’m trying to simplify my life.  My iPod Nano is the perfect tool for listening to audio books.  The Kindle is still too swiss-army knifey to make me happy.

I love that the Kindle is Green and I can go paperless, but I’ve decided that general magazines aren’t suited for it.  My fiction magazines are okay, but modern magazines have too much content, with lots of little sidebars and snippets of facts mixed in with the articles.  That busy layout doesn’t translate well to a pure reading layout of the Kindle.

Jim

Ethan Frome

For my May monthly selection for the 1 Percent Well-Read Challenge I decided to read Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.  This is my first reading experience with Wharton, and I was very impressed.  Ethan Frome was first published in 1911, but is set earlier, in a time before cars, when people lived very differently from how they do now.  I listened to an unabridged edition of this book from Recorded Books read by George Guidall, and as soon as I started listening I knew I was hearing very fine writing.

The reason I joined the 1 Percent Well-Read Challenge was to seek out books I’d normally never read, and to discover views of life that would be surprising and novel, and I think Wharton succeeded well with those goals.  Ethan Frome is a very short novel that is often assigned to school kids to read, and I can understand why.  The writing is vivid, sharp and full of details that should stimulate a lot of discussion with young modern minds.  At one point Ethan talks about stars and constellations and regrets he wasn’t able to escape from small town life to become educated and pursue scientific ambitions.  We seldom hear 19th century characters talk about science.

Ambition versus reality is a common thread throughout the story, and I can’t help but think any reader of this novel not comparing their own life with Ethan and Mattie.  We all want more than we’re given, and Wharton creates a rather horrific analogy of being trapped by circumstances beyond our control.  The heavy ironic ending would fit naturally into a Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show.

Classic novels of the past are a vehicle of time travel for me, especially ones like Ethan Frome that are written with a significant accumulation of details.  I started listening to Ethan Frome just after listening to The Cat Who Walks Through Walls by Robert A. Heinlein, a science fiction novel.  I was surprised by the stark contrast of details and lack of details.  Heinlein provided damn few details about his vision of the future, instead telling his story mostly in dialog.  Wharton told her story in a chronicle of observations, descriptions of moods and voice, and sparse dialog.  It would be fantastic if science fiction writers could make-up such realistic details about the future for their stories.

The Heinlein book was overtly about sexual relationships, but it was unrealistic.  The Wharton book dealt with sexual undercurrents at a time when writers couldn’t write directly about sex.  It was far more realistic.

Jim

* I was disturb by the number of out of print editions of Ethan Frome on the web that seemed to be no more than traps to get people to look at ads.  In the old Internet days there were a few sites for free books that would nicely format the texts for reading online.  These ad honeypots did not do that.  A lot of these sites were geared to school kids, knowing they had to research the book.  Some of these sites offered study guides, which is admirable, although the content on many were thin.  I’m hoping over time some of these study guide sites will emerge as true centers of study, and not just for school kids.  I think all of these book sites should try to format the text to make online reading easy, and offer links to common ebook formats for people who want to read on ebooks, PDAs, phones and laptops.  It would also be nice if they could integrate their ads into a layout that is more appealing to the eyes.  Fewer ads should get more attention, and if placed properly they shouldn’t detract from the content.  Most of the time the layout was so bad I immediately closed my browser tab.

Confessions of a Television Addict

I have been a television addict for over a half-century and seen more fantastic visions than Thomas de Quincey ever did as an opium addict.  I’ve always planned my schedule around TV viewing and although I think of myself as a bookworm, I spend far more hours watching rather than reading and probably should consider myself a tubeworm.

On a number of occasions throughout my life I’ve tried to go cold-turkey from the glass teat, as Harlan Ellison used to refer to television.  I’ve never succeeded for long.  My wife and I have two DVRs, each capable of recording two shows at once, and there are times when I want more.  We have a 56″ high definition television that we stare at for hours and hours each week, and our cable bill is $120 a month.  (This doesn’t count the $80 my wife spends at her M-F apartment out of town with a third DVR.)  Every evening after work I look at TV Guide’s excellent online grid schedule to plan my evening’s fix – juggling the hours to watch and record.

Since I can’t watch as fast as I can find good shows I want to watch my DVR is always near full and I’m constantly forced to offload shows to my DVD recorder.  Mostly I prefer documentaries, but I do love movies on TCM, and a some regular TV shows like Lost, ER, Gray’s Anatomy, The Big Bang Theory, Survivor, Masterpiece, and a few others.

Unfortunately, this means all my best free time is taken up in front of the boob tube, although I prefer to think of it as my sixth sense that watches out over the world and universe.  My high definition channels PBS, Discover, National Geographic, History, keep me well educated about what’s going on beyond what I can see for myself.  Sure there are plenty of nights when there is nothing on, but I don’t ever complain that television is a vast wasteland.  It’s a cultural fire hose.

Even though I value television immensely, I often feel I should cut back on my watching, or even give it up entirely for stretches at a time.  There is more to life than vicarious living through video.  I tell myself I need a balance.  More and more I find it grating that my cable bill is $120 a month.  On one hand I couldn’t get anywhere near that much entertainment value for my buck elsewhere, but on the other hand it seems extravagant.  Now that I’m thinking about retirement and living cheaply, it seems like a big expense.

I’d also like to live a more varied lifestyle, put more of my off-work hours into other hobbies and exercise, so I’m toying once again with cutting back on my television addiction.  And I’ve thought of a simple solution to try.  First I’d give up cable TV completely and buy an antenna for my HDTV.  That would reduce hundreds of channels down to four, and force me to live without DRVs.  Through my Netflix account I can make up for TCM, HBO and other premium channels.  And through the Internet I could supplement my television diet with Hulu.com and other online video sources.  I could maintain my addictive lifestyle and save $1500 a year, but that’s not the ultimate goal.

To tell the truth this solution still leaves me with too much choice.  What I’d really like to do is spend all of my extra time on writing fiction, web development and blogging – activities that are a bit more mentally demanding, but I see this plan as the first steps of weaning myself off my TV addiction.  I don’t want to give up TV, but get my use under control.

To tell the truth, I loved the way television was back in the 1950s and 1960s when there was little choice and most people watched the same shows.  I enjoy Survivor now because it ignites so much conversation between people I know.  Ditto for Lost.  I wouldn’t watch Survivor if it was only me, but I like Lost enough to watch it if I had no one to share with, but I enjoy it best when I get to jabber with other fans.

I’ve been seeing news stories about our lives being too full, and that we try to multitask too much, and that some people get more done by doing less.  I think this current urge to cut back on cable TV coincides with that national trend.  It is fantastic that cable television can offer so many types of shows, but this diversity of choice has negative attributes too.  As we get more choice my wife and I find less to watch together.  As I get more choice I find even more to watch.  What I would really like is the discipline to only watch one show a day – be it an over-the-air TV show, Netflix movie, or a DVD documentary.

I couldn’t pursue this experiment if my wife lived at home during the week – she’s a worse TV addict than I am.  She’s agreed to let me follow my abnormal inclination until she gets to move back home.  I think part of my drive to explore these changes in lifestyle is because I’ve been thinking so much about retirement.  I figure if I’m not going to work then I need to be more active.  TV is okay if you work hard all day and want to come home and relax, but I worry what TV would do to me if I had all day and evening to watch.

This reminds me of a book I once read called Positive Addiction.  It was the author’s belief that to get rid of a negative addiction you needed to substitute it with a positive addiction.  I’m hoping I’ll get addicted to writing and web programming, as well as more exercise and yard work.  Hell, I might even lose my coach potato paunch.

My plan is to turn in my cable boxes next Saturday unless I lose my will.  I’m sure whatever happens will lead to another post.

Jim

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls

Reviewing books is a touchy subject.  On one side of the coin, publicly calling someone’s creative baby ugly is just a mean thing to do.  Flipping the coin over reveals the whole needy world of authors begging for any kind of press they can get.  I’ve always dreamed of writing a book and getting published – what joy that would bring.  But I can also imagine the soul wrenching torture of waiting for reviewers and readers that never come.  Anyone who takes the time to review books is a generous human being, at least in the eyes of new writers.  Most magazines and newspapers have cut way back on their space devoted to book reviews, and I think bloggers have come to the rescue.

I wish had the time and talent to review books.  Those reviewers who can read a new novel and write a review that promotes the book without giving anything away, that sets the context in relation to other books of similar style and stories, who gives just the right snippets to hook potential readers and provides a bit of background about the writer, are people with a very special knack.  Really good reviews of this sort will not only introduce you to a new book but will teach you something about literature in general.

I don’t have that knack, so I don’t try to review books.  However I love books and I love talking about them and I love exploring where books take me on intellectual safaris.  I like to think of myself as an explorer of reality, but I’m not a pioneering explorer.  I follow in the footsteps of others where they leave notes along their path – those clues are called books.  I don’t read to be entertained, although I do love entertaining reading.  I think of books as very complicated messages – not messages with meaning, but messages with information about exploring reality.

Most people get bored if their friends spend more than a minute talking to them in a stretch.  Few people have the patience for lectures.  Well, a book, either fiction or nonfiction, is a very long speech from another person, sometimes ten or twenty hours, and even forty or fifty hours in some special cases.  No one will be patient enough to let a friend drone on and on like that.  Thus writing, either essay or fiction, is the art of capturing attention.

This long winded intro, which I hope hasn’t tried your patience, is leading up to something.  I’m trying to do two things here.  One, get clear in my mind what I’m doing when I talk about books, and two clarify or justify statements I have made in the past that have caused problems.  I’m hoping the next time you say, “I hated that book” you will have a new context to express yourself, because this essay will be about calling people’s intellectual babies ugly.  The public often hates critics because they come off as superior, and it is true, some critics are downright snooty, gleefully firing down their cannonball sarcasms from a superior vantage point.

I sometimes annoy people with sweeping statements I make about books.  For example, I frequently say I find books written by Robert A. Heinlein after The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress are painfully unreadable.  Now I know there are many Heinlein fans that love these later books even more than his earlier classics that I cherish, and I think its these people I annoy the most.  I don’t mean to offend or be inflammatory.  At one level when I say I find a book painfully unreadable all I mean is I personally experienced those books as painfully unreadable.  The real question here, for scientific purposes we might say, is whether or not books have absolute qualities that can be judged and compared.

I don’t like reviewing books in the sense that I’m going to say yea or nay as to whether someone should buy and read the book.  I love reading good book reviews, and I consider quality reviews a real art form.  I’ll mention again, I can’t carry that tune.  What I do like writing about is my impression of books, and how they affected my life.  Hey, it’s all about me, isn’t it?  That’s a joke, and not my vanity slipping, but it’s also a truism.  Blogging is news at a personal level.  Blogging is memoirs in bite-size chunks.  I’m can’t write scholarly reviews like I read in The New York Review of Books.  I would love to be that well educated so I could put each book I read into a larger context and relate it to its peers.

When I write about a book I want to relate how it fits into my life.  When I criticize Heinlein’s later books people need to know I how much I admired Heinlein’s earlier books.  The first paycheck I ever earned when I turned 16 was spent on ordering all twelve of the Charles Scribner’s Sons books by Heinlein in hardback direct from the publisher.  I once wrote an essay for Lan’s Lantern, an old fanzine from the 1980s, about how Heinlein was my father figure growing up.  I remember waiting for each new Heinlein book after The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, expecting so much and always be so disappointed.

There are many factors to explore here.  Did I change by growing up?  Did Heinlein change as a writer?  Or if I had read the later books at age 13 when I discovered and read all my favorite Heinlein books would my opinions be different about them?  Have I gotten older enough, and well read enough, to look at all of Heinlein’s books and judge them with a mature perspective?

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I just finished listening to The Cat Who Walked Through Walls which many Heinlein fans love because this story includes so many characters from Heinlein’s earlier much loved books.  Now I’ve read this book once and listened to it once, and it is probably the least offensive of all the later Heinlein books to me, but my personal opinion is the book is still mediocre Heinlein.  Oh, it’s more readable to me than The Number of the Beast or Friday, and its amusing to see what he does with the characters I loved from his older classic stories, and I do get a kick out of the meta-fiction, but ultimately I have to come down hard on this story.

Now if you love The Cat Who Walks Through Walls I’m not here to convince you that you are wrong.  I think the reasons why we bond with books are emotional and out of the range of analysis.  However, I do believe books have qualities that can be discussed and compared and maybe even judged.  The qualities are not as precise as the elements of physics and chemistry, but they are concepts we can get behind and even point to and say they exist.  Some of these qualities are characterization, plot, narrative, point-of-view, the accumulation of significant details, drama, and emotional conflicts.

If you enjoy reading The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and don’t want to be an English professor, critic, writer or literary scholar than these points won’t matter to you.  You buy the book, get your kicks and go on to your next read.  No big deal.  Maybe books do not have qualities that can be absolutely measured with scientific instruments, but those qualities can be discussed and judged.  The quality of any ruling is related to the quality of the judge and jury.  The judgement of giving The Cat Who Walks Through Walls to the MFA professors at the Iowa University writer’s program or Harold Bloom will be different from a group of fans at the hotel bar of a science fiction convention or panel discussion.

It is my thesis that The Cat Who Walks Through Walls could have been an outstandingly great novel but instead is a huge belly-flop.  Getting back to that explorer metaphor, let me say that Heinlein was aiming at a very ambitious idea, exploring new fictional territory with his World as Myth theory.  I don’t know if he was old and losing his writing abilities, lazy, or just corrupt by the power of writing, but The Cat Who Walks Through Walls fails miserably as a work of art.  I’m sure there are hordes of Heinlein fans who reread this book every year and find it delightful, but I’m not one.  Heinlein let me down big time.

Now here’s where my slip starts showing.  As an amateur explorer of the realms of fiction can I leave the notes that scientifically explain where I’ve been?  A good novel is built from many kinds of building blocks, and a great novel reflects the craftsmanship of each.  When I was a kid I liked to take mechanical alarm clocks apart to stare at the fascinating maze of mechanisms.  Exploring the world of fiction means learning how stories tick.

I know Heinlein intimately knew story engineering because he wrote so many masterpieces.  How can I judge him?  I’ve read a lot of great novels, and I’m slowly developing the sense for what makes them great.  I’m still in high school though.  How do I know that the later Heinlein books don’t involve master skills that I haven’t even come to recognize?  That’s a good question.  Like I said, I’m an explorer that follows in the footsteps of others.  I only have a vague sense of where the event horizon of the unknown lies.

I think quite a lot can be said about how The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is put together.  First off its a book that depends on older novels for characterization.  If you haven’t read The Rolling Stones, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Number of the Beast and other stories, you’re shortchanged when you read The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. And even if you are very familiar with these stories, there is still trouble.  Hazel Stone is not the same character in The Rolling Stones and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.

I know I’m about to make one of my statements that offends people, but here goes anyway.  The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is fan fiction, but of instead of being written by fans of Heinlein, Heinlein is writing the book for his fans.  However, the quality of the story telling is more like fan fiction in general, a poor parody of the original.  I know this was probably an emotional book for Heinlein to write, and I know his fans have a great emotional attachment for his characters, but is it only me that feels this books does a great disservice to the fictional people living in the original stories?

I’m not a reader who like sequels or long story series.  I often find a great novel is best left to stand alone, and writers shouldn’t cash in on earlier successes.  As far out as the concept World as Myth is, I can’t help think such stories are not much better than daydreaming about your favorite books and characters and making up your own fantasies.  I consider Heinlein a master storyteller – and I think it would have been far better for his career to have kept inventing new stories, characters and plots instead of recycling old ones.

However, if The Cat Who Walks Through Walls had at its foundation a novel as good as Have Space Suit-Will Travel, Tunnel in the Sky, Starman Jones and The Rolling Stones, and the World as Myth unfolded naturally as part of the storytelling this would have been a brilliant work of fiction.  Instead it’s a long meandering novel about crappy topics Heinlein was obsessed with and then near the end he throws in some World as Myth ideas and wraps things up quickly.  He should have stopped the book when he got these ideas, thrown out what he had, and then worked out a real plot to fit the idea.

To make this book a masterpiece requires letting the reader in on the gimmick as soon as possible, like the Jasper Fforde novels.  Second, and this is absolutely vital, is he needs to make his classic characters act and sound just like they did from the original novels.  Third, an again this is vitally important, he needs to make the mysterious enemies vivid and realistic.  To build proper tension and page turning power readers need to know what’s at risk as soon as possible.  A last minute explanation of the bad guys told and not shown at the end of the book is just pathetic writing.

I’m not a prude, but my most vicious attack on this novel will make me sound like one.  Having all of his “good” guys sound like a convention of smarmy talking wife-swappers is just gross.  I hate to sound like a teenage girl, but damn, Heinlein’s kissy-kissy talk and innuendo just made me want to puke.  And making his classic characters act out in this limp-dick porn flick is just tragic.  Having them go on and on about how they were going to kill people for bad manners is just a little psycho to me.  Evidently a lot of people and situations annoyed the hell out of Heinlein and he used this book to vent.  Some people want to call this satire but I think that’s whitewash.

Maybe Heinlein lost his mojo and these multiverse stories were the best he could do.  Personally, I thought The Rolling Stones was a perfect novel, and bringing back Hazel Stone was a fictionally fuck-up of an idea, ditto for the cast of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  Maybe I am a prude because I just don’t want the Hazel Stone, grandmother of Castor and Pollux, joking about being stretched out of shape by giant 25 centimeter cock.

All of Heinlein’s personally favorite characters get put into a fictional juicer and blended into weird rabble of sex obsessed mob that chirp a weird innuendo patter and are almost impossible to tell apart.  When I read these multiverse stories I can’t help but believe that horniness was driving Heinlein crazy.  These later stories are preoccupied with sex, killing people, responding to annoying people, the reliability of witnesses, rude people deserving capital punishment, and so on.  Not only does Heinlein recycle his characters to death, he constantly recycles his pet peeves.

The trouble with writers who keep recycling characters is their lovely fictional children get abused and mangled till they become unrecognizable from the characters of the original classic works.  The books Heinlein wrote in the 1950s contain some of the most inventive science fiction ever written.  He create fantastic science fictional ideas and matched those ideas with believable characters.  At the time he was on the cutting edge of exploring the boundaries of science fiction.

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls like the other multiverse stories, end up being a convention of swingers flirting with each other in endless pages of cutesy sex talk and solipsism arguments.  The lesson here for writers is don’t write in too many characters, and don’t have them all sound alike, and most especially don’t have them all sound like teenage girls trying to write porn.  Two people in a complicated plot that leads to sex is one thing, but stories that end up in orgies of leering conversation is a huge writing mistake.

Another story telling mistake is to give your characters too much power, and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls illustrates this perfectly.  If your heroes can time travel, dimension travel, live forever, then nothing feels real or believable, and no fictional conflict builds tension, and all bad guys feel like straw men put up for target practice.  Characters are built through the limitations they face, not from the magical powers they weld.

I actually believe that The Cat Who Walks Through Walls could have been as great as any of my favorite Heinlein stories.  Heinlein hated editors, but if he had his own Maxwell Perkins it’s no telling how good these later books could have been.

I do think Heinlein was exploring new territory, he just left poor notes.  As Heinlein neared death I think he feared his own end and worried about the mortality of his beloved characters, so these World as Myth stories created a heaven for them and himself to live in.  It’s a fantastic idea, and maybe why so many Heinlein fans love these stories.  It doesn’t mean they are good novels.  What I ask is to imagine if they had been great stories with the same theoretical ideas.  I don’t know why Heinlein became so sex-obsessed in his later years.  Maybe he always had been like that but stern editors censored him.  Or maybe he believed if we were all free from hang-ups and lived in the future we’d be wife-swappers, and all men and women would be horn-dogs.

Right after I finished The Cat Who Walks Through Walls I put on Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton to listen to and instantly heard master story telling.  Ethan Frome was first published by Charles Scribner’s, the publisher of Heinlein’s best books.  If Heinlein could have written The Cat Who Walks Through Walls with Wharton’s skill of narrative and characterization it would have been lighthouse on the shore of a new fictional ocean.  Recycling famous characters and authors into new stories is sailing on a dangerous sea.  Look at what they are doing to Jane Austen and her children.  Theoretically it might become a new art form, but it’s going to be hard to please the lovers of the original classic stories.  Heinlein couldn’t please me and he’s my favorite author.

Finally, I have to wonder if the sexual relationships that Heinlein wrote about is something he really expected for future people.  Today conservative thinking believes that sex should be between couples, and we’re arguing over whether those couples can include same sex partners.  We liberals answer yes.  Heinlein is speculating that in the future we’ll accept group sex marriages and even relationships we consider taboo now, such as incest, which I think is hard to believe even for liberals.  Like I said, I think of these ideas as swinger fantasies.  And we are a lot more liberated about sex than we were before Heinlein wrote Stranger in a Strange Land.  Even Ethan Frome is exploring the boundaries of sexual relationships in 1911.  What human behavior will be in the future is solid ground for speculative fiction, so I can’t object to Heinlein trying.

However, even the best of Heinlein’s stories shows a weak knowledge of human behavior.  Heinlein wrote great stories for teenagers, but his adults all seem a bit daffy, mainly because the characters from his adult novels were talky, opinionated and horny to strange degrees.  For all his later stories that speculate about group marriages he never once wrote realistically about people in such a dynamic relationship.

Now this gets me back to novels being complex messages.  The best novels contain treasures of data about how humans and society work.  They contain lots of intimate observations.  Heinlein didn’t write these kinds of stories.  He wrote about fantasy people, like the fantasy people of the Oz books or the Edgar Rice Burroughs books.  Look at how many lives that Tarzan has lived.  I think Heinlein was hoping his characters would have the fictional vitality of of Tarzan, John Carter, Dorothy, Toto, and The Wizard of Oz.

In these times of genre writers stretching out the lifetime of their characters in book after book. like some Days of Our Lives never-ending soap opera, was Heinlein’s ambition all that strange?  Readers love hanging onto favorite characters, but I don’t know if that’s healthy.  If the Heinlein juveniles would have been twelve books about one character it would have meant eleven fictional universes never seeing the light of creation.  Will we ever know if seven Harry Potter books are superior to seven different stories J. K. Rowling could have written?

Again, I think if Heinlein had written The Cat Who Walks Through Walls with original characters about a fictional reality where authors, fans, editors, movie directors and other writers could easily reshape the lives of those characters in fantastic ways he could have created a memorable original novel.  I think he confused the idea by recycling his older characters, because they aren’t his old characters really, nor are they new original characters, that get to be born fresh into a new virginal fictional reality.

Ultimately, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is an excellent lesson for me on how not to write a novel.  Heinlein, indeed was exploring new territory and I have learned from his efforts.  I could write a whole book tearing this story apart line by line but would it really be worth the effort?  I wouldn’t mind seeing other writers try using this idea and inventing a World as Myth with Heinlein and his characters.  Especially if the writer was very astute at analyzing Heinlein psychologically.  And just because I don’t think this is a very successful book it doesn’t mean I don’t think Heinlein fans shouldn’t read it.

Jim

Learning About the Web

I’m not a kid anymore, and I find myself trying to keep up with the fast-paced world of the Internet that seems built for kids who need Ritalin.    I’m doing okay, even though I’m a slow learner.  I still don’t understand the value of FaceBook, MySpace or Twitter, and there’s always something new that’s coming out that increases the pace of information processing.  I’m 56, and so far I haven’t had any luck getting my circle of friends to follow along with me into this new world.  Hell, my wife doesn’t even read my blog.  I tell her I often write about my girlfriends, but she doesn’t bite.

Yesterday I stumbled across a video series that explains many of the current social networking technologies that I thought I should post here.  I’ll see if I can get my old fart friends to stop by and watch them, hoping they might catch onto these newfangled ideas.

The videos are from a company Commoncraft and are an excellent example of educational videos for the web.  You can stop by the Show page and see their catalog.  Or just jump over to YouTube and search on “in Plain English” and you’ll find them so you can send them to your friends or add to your blog.  I’m going to embed a couple here to show off.

 

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

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Over at 1% Well-Read Challenge they have set up a reading dare that I found very enticing.  It is built around the book 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, which I ran out and bought and highly recommend to anyone who loves to read widely.  It’s richly illustrated and gives fascinating tidbits and short plot synopsis for 1001 books.  Oh sure, if you read the reviews on Amazon and other places on the net you’ll see a lot of grumbling that they didn’t include this book or that, but ignore such whining because overall, editor Peter Boxall included an amazing line-up of stories to get to know.  I’m now reading through this rather massive volume trying to select the perfect 10 books I’d like to read for the challenge.  The challenge is rather simple – read 1% – that is 10 books in 10 months.  You can see the list of titles here.

When I get the time, and I’m afraid I say this much too often and never find the time, I’m going to set up a web site for general books like I set up for science fiction.  My Classics of Science Fiction created a recommended reading list by finding 28 sources of recommendation, building a cross-tabulation database of all the titles and then deciding that any book that had been on 6 or more of the 28 sources would make my Classics of Science Fiction list.  I would use 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die as one of the sources for a Classic Books to Read web site.

Since I started blogging I’ve discovered the concept of the reading challenge, which is a fun blogging activity.  Over at A Striped Armchair, Eva seems to be the queen of reading challenges, and you can find a lot of good information there.  I don’t have Eva’s ability to read so many books quickly, so I think I’ll start out slow and just stick to this one challenge for awhile, but if you’re a bookworm, I bet they’re addictive.  Although scanning down Eva’s right hand column makes me want to bite off a lot more than my eyes can chew reading-wise.

One reason this reading challenge is so enticing is because of the reading rut I’m in.  I read all the time, but I seem to be going through a period of less than stellar books.  I’m finding plenty to read, even very good books, but few books this year have really jazzed my mind.  The last was The Road by Cormac McCarthy back in January.  That’s the thing about being a jaded bookworm – reading is only as exciting as your last great book.  I want every novel to go nova in my brain.  And when I finish that explosion I hunger for a book that will go supernova.

Then I’m willing to back off and read some gentle books for awhile, maybe some nice informative non-fiction, or even a crappy guilty-pleasure novel, but eventually, the gnawing returns and I need another nova level fix.  That’s where I’m at right now.  I want something that will make every white blood cell tango in my veins and give me a reading fever.  As every bookworm knows, unless a book makes you willing to give up food, sleep and sex and contort you body for hours clutching a tome until it hurts, then it’s not much of a page turner.

Scan the list and let me know of any that have blown your mind.  I’m looking for 10 Supernova Books!

[The New York Times just reviewed 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die as “Volumes to Go Before You Die” and it is an excellent supplement to the book.]

Jim

Slower Than Light Imagination

Science fiction has always entertained the idea that travel between the stars would be no more arduous than travel between countries around the world today.  Because science fiction is basically adventure fiction, rocketing between Star A and Star B isn’t very exciting plotwise, so writers long ago imagined theoretical faster-than-light drives.  Anyone who has studied physics knows that these ideas are fantasies, and they contradict the notion that science fiction is based on science.  So as readers, should we accept science fiction as unscientific fun, or should we ask science fiction writers to be more scientific?

If travel between the stars was as slow as it took knowledge to evolve from Aristotle to Einstein would it still make for exciting fiction?  Science fiction has hinted at the immensity of generational ship travel, but it’s hard to write a novel that contains centuries of human activities.  I would think most novels would end up being about just the journey or jump to the destination and be just about the evolved world-building of starting a civilization on a new planet.  Interstellar war wouldn’t make any sense storywise, and neither would commerce between planets within a galactic empire, killing off two main sub-genres of SF.

Has any science fiction writer pictured a future where there are dozens of settled worlds and communication between them take years and decades?  Imagined if we had already colonized six other star systems, how would that feel to us people living on Earth?  Would it really feel any different than watching stories about China in the news?  Or imagine blogging with people from the six colonies – reading a steady stream of daily posts could be exciting – but commenting would be pointless.

There are hundreds of diverse countries around this globe that most people ignore in their daily life.  Sure, future people might watch an occasional documentary set on another world just like we watch a National Geographic show about an exotic Pacific island now.  Slower than light travel and speed of light communication will make an odd expansion of the human sphere of influence.  We could stay constantly in contact with generation ships and influence each other’s language and culture.  Just imagine new songs, television shows, books and movies coming from generation ships and colonies on distant planets.

A cool novel would be following two friends, one on Earth and one on a generation ship, staying in contact by a steady stream of messages where the time lag of replies grows ever longer.  Heinlein hinted as the possibilities of such a story with his novel Time for the Stars, but he cheated and used instantaneous telepathy as a form of communication.

Once I started thinking about STL travel to the stars I realize that science fiction hasn’t even begun to explore the idea.  Science fiction has fixated on space opera, military conflict and galactic civilizations, all from the realm of fantasy to the almost complete exclusion of how things might be.  Why is this?  Obviously, adventure fiction is built on conflict – where fighting nasty aliens is thrilling and the politics of interstellar empires offers far more intrigue.

It also shows a lack of imagination.  Two recent literary novels using fantasy and science fiction techniques, The Life of Pi by Yann Martel and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, absolutely kicked our genre’s ass when it came to plotting outside of the traditional genre box.  Too often science fiction writers find their inspiration from science fiction tradition, like John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, a book I had much fun reading and which felt like delicious SF nostalgia rather than Cirque du Soleil storytelling dazzle that I got out of The Life of Pi or The Time Traveler’s Wife

I’m guessing that future SF writers of the talent of Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke won’t use golden age giants for their models, but come out of left field with stories that surprise us.  And one area where I’d love to be surprised is by reading stories that make me think I might be reading real possible futures.  I used to think reading history was a way to know the past, and reading science fiction was a way to imagine possible futures.  I hate the idea of dying and not know the future of mankind, so I always loved science fiction as a way to speculate and sooth my existential sadness about the future, however the older I get the more I’m disappointed with the help I’m getting from science fiction.  Some science fiction stories do admirably work at what I want, but too often science fiction has become recursive, like standing between two mirrors, mesmerizing but limited.

I’m not saying that generation ships are the only way to envision mankind traveling to the stars.  What if travel could be speeded up to a significant fraction of the speed of light?  Then it’s possible to write about people who make the whole trip from one star to the next.  It is physically possible to travel such speeds but it is highly unlikely it will ever be done by humans, but I’m more than willing to explore the possibilities.  I don’t think science fiction has really explored the nature of relativity all that well.  There were some stellar examples like Tau Zero by Poul Anderson and The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.

One inherent barrier to what I’m talking about is SF novels are from the POV of the characters on the cutting edge of the action.  The reader gets to experience reaching another world but never understands what the rest of humanity feels about such a success for our species. 

Imagine a classroom of students adopting a young astronaut on the first near-light speed trip to another star.  To the astronaut, the trip will be a few years to him, but a lifetime to those kids.  What if Neil Armstrong’s whole trip to the Moon took our entire lifetime, and his story was one we followed avidly our whole life, sharing with friends.  Can you imagine a novel about thirty 13-year-old school kids meeting a 25-year old man before his trip, and then a group of 83-year-old grown-up kids meeting him again when he returned and was only 35? 

Now the kicker, whose story would be more interesting?  The guy who got to go to another star, or the group that got to experience seventy years of life on Earth during a time when mankind was going to the stars?  The genre writer would pick the astronaut, but the literary writer would pick the kids.

Living in space is so much different from the dreams of science fiction.  It has been my theory that science and science fiction diverged back in the 1960s when space travel became a reality.  It is theoretically possible for mankind to live in space despite all the harsh realities of the dangers it poses.  Future space ships that travel between the stars will probably be large asteroids that are flung between the stars, to drift at speeds far below the speed of light.  They would have be self-contained worlds, with energy systems that could function for centuries.  The art of recycling would have to be near perfect.

Such space travel is a far cry from the adventures of Hans Solo and Captains Kirk and Picard.  Do science fiction readers have the patience for such stories?  Robert A. Heinlein imagined the fantastic tale of people forgetting they were the crew on such ship in Orphans of the Sky.   Brian Aldiss wrote a very similar story called Non-Stop/Starship.  In fact, most generation ship stories, including the more modern ones like Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo and The Book of the Long Son by Gene Wolfe can’t get past the idea that the inhabitants of such voyages will forgot their missions.  Wolfe goes go way beyond Heinlein by imagining a vastly complex society that is far more interesting than space travel itself.

Has any science fiction writer imagined such a generation ship society that remembers their purpose and creates a society that reflects what living between the stars would be like with the full knowledge of where they are and why they are there?  Like I said earlier, it’s probably easier to just skip the journey and create a new world for your characters to have their adventures.  But isn’t this just a way to set Lord of the Rings on another planet?

When does science fiction turn into fantasy?  Think about it.  Wherever we go in the universe, humans will all face the same problems.  Air, water, food and shelter.  After that comes community and civilization.  If we don’t forget like those characters in the Heinlein story, we’ll always have an ever-growing body of science and knowledge to work with and use.  In other words, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy.  It will be like on Earth, but somewhere else, but with a vastly different society and culture, but will it be that different?

Science fiction was born during a time when the knowledge about other planets could easily fit into a single volume.  In the 21st Century a SF writer needs to read dozens of books to scratch the surface about what astronomy now knows about outer space.  It seems when NASA probes starting sending back photos SF stopped trying to deal with space reality.  I find it amazing that when NASA started succeeding, Heinlein shifted his focus from outer space science fiction, to the inner space of sexual/social science fiction.  That was a brilliant career move, but unfortunately he stopped being speculative and entered a personal recursive mode, restating the same ideas over and over again in each new book.  If only he had been as inventive as he had been in his 1950s space books.

What if mankind never goes to the stars, or even to Mars?  That’s one area that science fiction has totally failed to explore.  Science fiction has always assumed the final frontier is outer space – what if that’s a bust?  What if our species is trapped on Earth for millions of years, what does that do to us psychologically?  What if robots get to conquer the galaxy but we don’t?

Has science fiction become a steady-state recursive universe because of faster-than-light travel fantasies?  Has science fiction become entrenched in a Ptolemaic world view and desperately in need of a Copernicus?  Has our faith in FTL stories kept us from understanding what modern day Galileos are telling us?

Science fiction will always be exciting to kids because all of its great ideas are still new to them.  However, as readers grow older and have several hundred stories under their belt, science fiction stops being novel.  It gets harder to find truly sense-of-wonder stories.  I’d like to think if science fiction tried to recapture its relationship with science it might find new realms of wonder.

Jim