The Science Fiction Event Horizon

Science fiction has always been about speculation, and some old SF writers even called it speculative fiction. Humans have always speculated about what’s possible, with what if scenarios, so even though the word science had not been invented, I believe there were science fiction “writers” since the dawn of time. We know the ancient Greeks speculated on the existence of other worlds and life on them. Gods, god, immortality, sin, justice, and so on, are all theories invented by speculation. Our brains have had a mechanism for speculation for a very long time.

Regarding science fiction I believe that three things happen to speculative ideas. First, they can come true like submarines imagined by Jules Verne. Second, they will be discounted as impossible, like H. G. Wells idea of time travel or E. E. (Doc) Smith’s theory of faster-than-light travel. Third, believers can be trapped inside of the SF Event Horizon always living with the speculation that their idea is true, like true believers of the first speculative theories, religion.

For science fiction to remain vital it must stay above the event horizon or be pulled down into the gravitation hole of fantasy. Unfortunately, most science fiction ends up being fantasy, and believers end up stuck inside the SF Event Horizon. Take for instance the Star Wars series of movies, much loved by a generation of SF fans, and even non SF fans. Star Wars is essentially recycled SF from the 1930s and 1940s, the space opera of Edmund Hamilton, the aliens and mysticism of the Lensmen series, and the historical politics of the Asimov’s Foundation series. As speculative ideas, these were all born within the event horizon – anyone with a good education could have shot them down back in the 1930s, but few people had that education and they were exciting ideas that made legions of converts. Outside of the SF Event Horizon, writers in the 1950s and 1960s took SF in new directions leaving galactic empires behind, even though the general public didn’t discover galactic empires until the 1970s with Star Wars.

Science fiction of the 19th and early 20th century helped promote the reality planetary exploration, rocketry and manned space travel. Above the SF Event Horizon, we know a lot about space travel, a whole lot. Subscribe to Sky & Telescope for a year and study the articles and you’ll see our knowledge of astronomy is going through a renaissance of epic proportions. What we know about physics and astronomy puts nearly all speculative fiction about space travel inside the SF Event Horizon. If you are a true believer in Star Wars, then you are trapped inside and can’t see out. Is it any wonder that the generation after the Star Wars generation embraced Tolkien mythology and Harry Potter?

Science fiction as true speculative fiction is going through a morbid period right now. Has science thrown most of science fiction or speculative fiction into the gravity well of fantasy? How many stories are written about slower-than-light travel to the stars, and how many people do they inspire? Life extension is still valid speculation. So is artificial intelligence, robots, nanotechnology, the singularity, genetic modifications, and so on. We have lots of room for real speculation, but are we seeing it in science fiction stories? I don’t know, but I’m going to go look for it. I know I don’t see it on television or at the movies. Movies have always lagged far behind the speculative fiction of written science fiction. When will we see media fiction based on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy? Most kids today live in a world of SF video games that are stuck in H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds speculation from the 1890s.

If your idea of hard SF is military FTL epics then you are trapped inside the SF Event Horizon with Edmund Hamilton and Hobbits. Go read Charlie Stross’ The High Frontier, Redux which just scratches the surface of reality. If all you want is entertainment, then live inside of the SF Event Horizon and be happy. No problem, at all. I have no intention of attacking entertainment, but I would prefer to call what most people call science fiction as fantasy.

A long time ago, back in the Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell eras, science fiction was promoted as serious speculation about what we might discover in this universe. Even then it was 99.99% entertainment and .01% speculative fiction, but they sold the science and speculation angle hard. I know what’s called science fiction today is really just entertainment. The Science Fiction section in bookstores should really be called Fantasy Books, because science essentially disappeared from science fiction a long time ago.

That doesn’t mean that speculative fiction is dead, just mostly forgotten. Go watch Wired Science, a science news show on PBS. Its part modern Mr. Wizard show and part on the scene news with cutting edge science dudes doing far out work. Science and scientists have taken speculative fiction and run with it. If you flick around on your digital cable TV you’ll find a lot of science and technology shows. The real world makes Astounding Stories look dull and faded. When are we going to get a science fiction magazine that uses now for its fuel for speculative fiction, rather than living on stories that depend on variations of ideas long trapped in the SF Event Horizon?

When are we going to get a 21st Century Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, E. E. Smith or Robert A. Heinlein? They don’t have to invent speculative ideas that will end up being real and true, just new ones, based on ideas that haven’t already been proven false. It’s better to be a Jules Verne and nail a few with your imagination, but hitting one out of the park by inventing a concept like time travel is worthy too. My worry is most of humanity and its imagination is trapped within the SF Event Horizon. I worry that most people feel if they can’t cruise around the galaxy like Hans Solo or Captain Picard, then they’d rather live on fantasy inside the SF Event Horizon than to explore the dirty grim reality of an airless, lifeless rocky Mars.

Final note. If you want to read a beautiful speculative fiction story that is a metaphor for what I’ve written above, read The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Depending on which ending you believe is true, it will tell you whether or not you are living within the SF Event Horizon.

JWH

SuperBookworms

I feel a certain amount of pride in the number of books I read and take a certain pleasure in thinking of myself as a bookworm, but I’m a total slacker when I compare myself to some people I found on the net while searching for Best Books of 2007. Take a look at Jason Lunberg’s 2007 books read blog entry. He lists 90 books. I have a mere 39 on my log for 2007, down from 53 in 2006. My lame excuse, I got bogged down trying to listen to the Bible and while concurrently studying it at the same time, and I still haven’t finished the Old Testament or any of the supplemental books I bought to help explain it.

This got me to thinking. How many books can a person read in a year? I next found “Anglers Rest” with a partial list that ends at 109. After that I found lots of people listing 40-60 books, like “So Many Books” or “Orpheus Sings the Electric” that I tend to think that around a book a week is the range of the serious bookworm. Looking at the titles, these bookworms also seem to be very diverse readers, reading a mixture of classics, genres, literary and non-fiction, memoirs and biographies. It certainly would be fun to get a party of these people together and get them arguing over best books and writers.

Then I found Eva’s “A Striped Armchair” with 200 titles listed – but only through October 25th and I am in awe! Now she is a SuperBookworm! I’d call anyone reading more than 100 books a year a SuperBookworm. Of course, she is a twenty-one year old nanny taking time off after college before getting real, so that explains some things. When I took “some time off from college” or as my family refers to that time as “Jim’s unpaid vacation as a worthless bum,” I read 478 books in eighteen months. To be honest, I read to avoid growing up and to keep my mind off the question about what to do with my life. I have to wonder if Eva isn’t doing that too.

I kept going through my Google returns but I didn’t find anyone to top Eva. I then found a site that focuses on doing what I was doing with Google. Over at ~Listology~ they take this idea seriously. They generate lists of lists that take the idea to the extreme.

Still, reading over 200 books in one year boggles my mind. Is Eva the top bookworm of the year? I don’t know. If I was a SuperProgrammer, I’d write a program to crawl the net, gather up all the “Books Read 2007” lists from my Google search and compile a database and cross tabulate it to see what were the most read books and who read the most books. If you assume hardcore Bookworms and SuperBookworms have reached the stage of being jaded over bad books and also assume they would naturally seek out the best books, this system might tell me what the best books are to read.

I doubt I’ll ever be able to call myself a SuperBookworm and read one hundred books in a year again. When I was a kid in junior high and high school there were long periods where I could read a book a day, but those were crappy science fiction novels, and SF novels back then were often less than 200 pages long. I don’t want to read worthless crap books any more, and the types of books I like to read now take about a week to finish. I’ll be content with this pace if I read the best of best books and I’ll die knowing I did a good bookwormly job.

The motto I would like to live up to is: Why read any book when you can read a great book!” That’s not an easy motto to follow if you have an undisciplined mind that likes to pursue odd ends and thoughts. I could, but it would probably be silly knowing my true self, to make a resolution for 2008 to only read great books.

I want to read the best books, but I don’t want to stick to just the same old famous classics. That’s why I like to read these Books Read 2007 lists. However, I wish there were other ways to validate good reading ideas.

There are other methods to find lists of great books, such as the one at New York Magazine, “The Best Novels You’ve Never Read,” where they had sixty-one critics recommending their favorite underrated books from the last ten years and producing a year’s worth of reading for the average bookworm. I had read only one of these titles, The Accidental by Ali Smith, and shamefully, I had not even heard of most of the others. New York Magazine even tries to recommend authors who will be taught in school in 50 years in their article, “The Future Canon.” Again, I’m stymied by my lack of knowledge.

Not only am I not a SuperBookworm, but I’m just a normal bookworm with less than good taste. I suppose I need to go get Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and get busy. I’m not a total illiterate, because a quick glance showed I read 4 of the first 20 on this list of his titles at listology. Assuming I followed this list, it would take me twenty years to finish it, and that doesn’t count for any fantastic books written after the list was written, or cover all the Harvard Classics type books that aren’t on this list.

I should join the others and list my Books Read 2007, but glancing down my log I gladly notice a reasonable number of good books, and some even interesting books, but I also embarrassingly note I read a lot of crap, so I think I’ll curl my tail between my legs and walk away cowered by the SuperBookworms.

JWH

Battles of the Sexes in Juno

If you haven’t seen Juno, do not read beyond the first paragraph because I haven’t learned how to write a movie review that doesn’t give things away. I’m more interested in dissecting films. Subliminal philosophy and politics in pop culture inspires me to write more than helping people decide how to spend their money and time. Although, only a misanthrope would hate this charming movie about sixteen-year-old Juno MacGuff’s struggle to find a good home for her unborn baby. Juno, played by Ellen Page, reminds me a lot of Tom Henderson (a.k.a. Chi-mo) in Frank Portman’s novel King Dork because of the music Juno and Tom both love. Juno the movie, lacks an edge except for Juno’s the character’s wonderful dialog, which zings due to the writer Diablo Cody. Cody, the author of Candy Girl, A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, provides the one clue to one of my major questions about the film: Is the dialog and attitude of the young girls in this picture in any way representative of youthful females of today?

Juno is the realistic polar opposite of the unrealistic movie Knocked Up, a film I dissected in “Morality in Knocked Up Places.” Both films are about unplanned pregnancies resulting from smart women making stupid mistakes when it comes to having sex. You’d think with all the official and unofficial sex education that goes on in schools and pop culture that these basic skills would be ingrained in the current generation of young people exploring biological urges. But then comedy is often about exceptional mistakes.

In Knocked Up we had a career-successful female beauty mating unrealistically with a career-lacking loser of questionable physical charms, Juno realistically pairs a girl geek with a boy geek. Unlike Knocked Up, Juno spends more time exploring the abortion issue but both movies reject it. Cliché Hollywood is supposed to be about liberalism, but it’s my belief that both films promote common conservative ideals. Back in the 1960s and 1970s this subject matter would highlight the generation gap, but in Juno, Juno’s parents are savvy and supportive from the first moment this issue comes up. Juno isn’t abandoned by her parents, kicked out of school, shunned by her friends or required to move away for nine months and hide her shame. Hell, Juno isn’t even shown as being ashamed for being a dumbass and not having her boyfriend wear a condom.

In fact, this is a pretty guilt free movie, even though there are a lot of regrets expressed by the characters, and emotional suffering. The story and characters show a kind of Eastern philosophical acceptance about what goes on in life. Like I said before, this is not an edgy film full of intense overblown drama. There are two events in the film I would like to examine, and like I warned above, talking about them will spoil the movie if you haven’t seen it.

My first question about this film: Is Mark Loring, the potential Dad for Juno’s baby played by Jason Bateman, portrayed as a bad-guy in Juno? At the last moment he decides to leave his wife, ruining her plans for motherhood, and messes up Juno’s dream of giving her baby a better place in life than her life. At first viewing, Mark appears to be the poster male for the often stated remark of angry females that men are assholes. Vanessa Loring, played by Jennifer Garner, is at first shattered by the news but quickly accepts his decision?

Mark decides to do what the men of Knocked Up only dream about. He abandons marriage and child for personal interests and hobbies. Oddly in Juno, written by a female writer, this is accepted, but in Knocked Up written by a male writer it is not. I have to ask is it male guilt that maintains the monogamous status quo? Juno picks Mark and Vanessa living in their picture-perfect McMansion as the obvious place to let her baby nest and grow up even though it’s clear to both her and the audience that Mark and Vanessa have nothing in common. They are as different as the couples in Knocked Up, yet they hadn’t married because of pregnancy.

Juno MacGuff desperately wants marriage to be about living happy-ever-after forever, something her parents failed to do. Mac MacGuff has to advice Juno is to find the person that gets her and hope for the best. As Peeping Toms staring into the two worlds of Juno and Knocked Up – we the audience sees that most of the couples do not follow this advice. The philosophy expressed by Judd Apatow is men should abandon their personal desires and bite the bullet for children and family. Diablo Cody on the other hand expresses that friendship is more powerful than families.

Mark Loring is leaving Vanessa because he wants friends of his own kind, and in this movie that is accepted. The second piece of implied movie philosophy that I question though: Why shouldn’t the baby go to Juno and Paulie? Am I the only person to wonder why Juno and Paulie shouldn’t keep the baby once they discover how important their friendship is to each other? What is Diablo Cody and Hollywood telling us in this instance? Is the right thing for irresponsible sixteen-year-olds is to give up their babies? Yes, our society abhors teenage pregnancies, but does it also hate teenage marriages? Is Apatow taking a better moral stance than Diablo Cody? Sure Vanessa deserves to have a baby too, but doesn’t a baby deserve to have its genetic parents, especially when they love each other?

I can’t help but wonder if you got Judd Apatow and Diablo Cody together if they wouldn’t hammer out some kind of policy that up to a certain age people should be free of responsibility. Cody evidently believes if there are no children you can always opt out. In all of this I’m wondering if Hollywood isn’t slowly working out a philosophical position on modern morality, but one that probably trails the actual activities of the current generation.

Juno has a happy romantic ending with Juno and Paulie playing guitars together. We know the results of Juno’s agonizing decision making when we see her scrawled note to Vanessa framed on the wall, but we do not know the process of how she reached that decision. Juno never consulted Paulie, the biological dad, or her best friend Leah, or her parents, so her thoughts are never revealed to us. But I like Juno so much as a character that I believe she would be a wonderful mother and Paulie would be a good father. I feel sorry for the kids growing up with the Knocked Up parents because they were too much like my parents, married and staying married for the wrong reasons.

I’m quite sure most people will think I’m seeing too much in movies. However, I don’t believe writers write just to entertain, although that might be 99.99% in some cases. I think serious writers, even writers of comedy, want to say something about their generation and the world. As a baby boomer, I was bombarded by the fictional morality of the generation before me. I know the baby boomers demanded and expected the whole wide world to watch them. So, is it too much to expect that later generations might have reactionary messages hidden away in their stories? King Dork was a hilarious missive from Gen-X to the Catcher-in-the-Rye crowd.

JWH

Fondly Fahrenheit by Alfred Bester

    “Fondly Fahrenheit” is a classic science fiction short story written by Alfred Bester who wrote two mega-masterpieces of science fiction, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. The Demolished Man shared the #1 spot on my Classics of Science Fiction list with Dune by Frank Herbert and More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon, and The Stars My Destination was #13. Alfred Bester was a writer’s writer among science fiction authors. Bester only visited the science fiction field in his long career, just long enough to write a couple classic novels and a handful of equally good short stories before moving on – so he’s not well known to young SF readers of today.

    Wonder Audio hopes to change that by publishing a fine audio presentation of “Fondly Fahrenheit” for the iTunes and Audible.com generation, along with a handful of other classic SF short stories by Cordwainer Smith, Jack Vane, Poul Anderson and Jerome Bixby.

    Alfred Bester wrote weirdly flamboyant styled stories in a field noted for dull writing and far out ideas, and “Fondly Fahrenheit” stands out with its multiple viewpoint POVs. This story, first published in August 1954 in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction has been heavily anthologized ever since, including The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 1. Robert Silverberg even used “Fondly Fahrenheit” as an example story to deconstruct in his book about writing science fiction called Science Fiction 101 or Worlds of Wonder. (Don’t you just hate it when they rename a book?)

    Alfred Bester wrote science fiction in the 1950s, during a time when social and psychological issues were just as important as space opera and time travel, and “Fondly Fahrenheit” features a Sweeney Todd deranged android that sharply contrasts with the clean and wholesome Asimov robots. This is a strangely adult story marketed in a genre mainly targeting the adolescent, and in a strange way can be considered disturbing, both in subject matter, but also to the field of science fiction of its day. Like I’ve implied, I considered Bester weird, stranger than A. E. Van Vogt, but not as far out as Philip K. Dick whose career came after Bester’s. “Fondly Fahrenheit” is an android story and pairs well with Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the novel the brilliant Sci-Fi film Blade Runner was based on.

    I don’t believe in retelling plot elements when recommending a story so you’ll have to go read it, or better yet, snag the audio copy. Pat Bottino does a good job of making the multiple-aptitude android sound crazed, and his reading gives the story a good creepy feeling. Listening really helps accentuate the dual first-person POV, the shifting first-person POVs and the third-person story telling. The story does everything a MFA writing teacher tells you not to do.

    Let’s hope Wonder Audio succeeds and produces a long list of classic short SF on audio. I’m curious how marketing single short stories will work out. Infinivox is also working the same market of audio short SF&F, but with more recent stories, including some longer novella work like “Beggars in Spain” by Nancy Kress. Both are companies that sell on Audible.com, but I didn’t see Infinivox on iTunes.

    I would think short SF&F would be great for the iPod age, but I worry about the pricing. Audio book pricing is strange and inconsistent to begin with. Do you price digital downloads the same way you price cassette and CD collections? Is the three hour “Beggars in Spain” worth $8.81 or 1 credit at Audible.com when the full eleven hour novel Ender’s Game is also one credit, and $19.58, but often on sale for $9.95? Of course Audible insanely charges 1 credit for some audio books that just last a few minutes.

    James Patrick Kelly sells his short stories on Audible.com by the story and by the StoryPod of 13 stories bundled together. I often buy short story collections on Audible.com and I look at the total time to judge how to spend my credit. If a collection is over 8 hours I consider it a bargain. Wonder Audio and Infinivox may need to bundle their stories into theme collections on Audible.com and see how they sell for a single credit compared to selling the stories separately.

    On the other hand, I’ve always wished that short stories would become as popular on the Internet as MP3 songs, so kids would collect them for their iPods and trade them. This doesn’t work with DRM systems, such as those used on iTunes and Audible.com. We’ll have to see if Amazon.com doesn’t develop a market for short story MP3s like they have for music. Publishers need to accept and market to the natural instinct of people wanting to share their favorite songs and stories.

    If audio short stories were sold for $2 in MP3 formats would they become popular enough to make them a commercial success? You can’t charge too much for them – songs go for 99 cents and TV shows for $2, so I doubt kids would value short stories more than an episode of Lost. The classic printed short story is a dying art form. I’ve always wondered if audio short stories could be marketed to appeal to the young and bring back their popularity. With the rise of the MP3 player this makes this idea possible but it’s a chicken and egg problem to solve. Kids don’t know about short stories, so they won’t try them on their iPods.

    People pass around songs, jokes, short films, crazy photos and such in email attachments. I wonder if flash fiction stories can be squeezed into the same number of megabytes as a song or short film and sent as an email attachment which could help seed the idea. Give these away with the encouragement to pass them on but put notices at the end, for longer stories visit our website at such and such. Comedy shorts like David Sedaris would be a good start. It’s just an idea, but I wish some publishers would give it a try.

JWH

Science Fiction Short Stories State of the Union

Before the Internet if you wanted to read new science fiction and fantasy (SF&F) short stories your main venue was the newsstand. As sales of pulp magazines declined new sources of stories appeared in paperback and hard cover with original anthologies and book series like the classic Orbit edited by Damon Knight. For those of you who can’t keep up with the monthly magazines and webzines there are many SF&F annual best-of anthologies to let you sample the high points of the year. For more than two decades Gardner Dozois has been producing the giant The Year’s Best Science Fiction tome and he has a number of competitors. His most recent volume, the twenty-fourth annual collection, came out last July. Along with his exhaustive Summation report and vast collection of stories, it’s the absolute best single volume to stay in touch with the SF short story market.

Now in the far future year of 2008, we can still find SF&F stories in magazines and books, but also online, as podcasts, audio books and even ebooks. It’s pretty damn science fictional to read SF&F on a Kindle or listen to it whispered into your ears via an iPod. I used to be a regular subscriber to all the major monthly magazines but I’ve gotten out of touch in recent years. My fellow Clarion West 2002 classmates who have gone on to publishing stories keep finding amazing new markets and I’ve been meaning to try them out. (I still dream of writing science fiction and sadly, I am among the laggards of my class who haven’t published anything so far.)

To get a picture of what’s out there and hopefully inspire me to write fiction again, I thought I’d take a quick look at all the SF&F markets. I do miss regularly reading SF short stories because it’s the short fiction that really defines the science fiction genre in my mind. I don’t have time to keep up with SF novels, and to be honest, they seldom offer the punch as they did when I was a teenager. The short story is different, it still has sense of wonder value and presents far out visions from writers who are working with the rule that the sky is no limit.

My favorite method of “reading” science fiction short stories is with audio editions. Escape Pod is a good free introduction to the concept. Escape Pod offers a great selection of stories so it’s an obvious place to start. The readings vary in quality, but aren’t up to the best work of professional narrators. To understand what I mean requires going to Audible.com and buying a general collection or old issues of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction or the single best-of collections of Analog or Asimov’s. Or going to Amazon.com and buying Science Fiction: The Best of the Year 2006 audio edition, edited by Rich Horton. It’s a ten CD collection of SF audio short stories. I’d pay a lot for the annual Dozois collection if it was done as unabridged audio.

I can’t emphasize how much I love audio SF&F short stories. I even got on Amazon/ABEbooks.com and ran various searches to track down and ordered used copies of all the old cassette editions of SF&F short stories I could find. There’s not that many but I found a lot of gems.

This past year James Patrick Kelly has been selling his short stories on Audible.com in batches of 13 that are released one a week. They are called StoryPod 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0. I wish more SF&F authors would do this. Overall I was very impressed with his writing and ideas. His stories are a good introduction to audio SF.

What I really wish is for a regular audio collection, like a Reader’s Digest, but of genre and literary short stories to be sold by Audible.com. Good audio readings absolutely showcase short stories. I’m currently listening to Stories of the South 2004 and each story is like a potent distilled novel, very intense.

Audio productions magnify story telling skills – so bad stories are glaringly bad, but good ones are just damn vivid. If you want to be a writer listen to audio short stories, it’s a way to study how stories work and succeed.

Fictionwise.com now offers F&SF, Asimov’s, Analog and Interzone magazines as ebooks, as well as Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery magazines. Each magazine is available in a variety of computer formats including for the new Kindle reader. If you register your Kindle with Fictionwise, all your purchased books will have an “Email to Kindle” button beside the title. Just press it and go to your Kindle and start reading. Anything they offer in MultiFormat works with the Kindle and Sony readers, as well as a long list of older readers.

Amazon also sells many of the back volumes of the Dozois and Hartwell annual best-of collections in Kindle format, as well as many theme short story collections, and strangely enough, reprints of ancient pulp era science fiction. You could stuff your Kindle with thousands of short stories.

Audio / Podcasts

Magazines

Webzines

Short Fiction Reviews

Annual Anthologies

JWH

Update 12/28/07:  I just discovered that The New Yorker offers a monthly podcast, available through iTunes or at the New Yorker website, that hosts a visiting author who reads a short story he or she admires.  I know this isn’t science fiction related, but if you are used to podcasts, its a fantastic way to bring audio short stories into your life.  I wished the New Yorker would hire professional readers and offered their weekly fiction this way.  Their short stories are the best literary fiction in the world which is validated yearly in the annual Best American Short Fiction anthologies.

Portraits of Reality or Fantasy?

On the Friday before Christmas I was practicing with my Nikon D50 camera at work learning how to use the RAW mode, a technique to maximize details. I’ve become the unofficial photographer even though I have limited photographic skills. This allows me to justify spending a bit of work time learning photography. Coincidentally that day, a lady at work wanted a new photo for our web page and I decided to use her for my tests using RAW mode. I soon learned that the goals of RAW filming conflicted with female psychology and I had to learn to use the Blur Tool instead. Thus photography becomes a lesson in reality versus fantasy.

One goal I have for taking pictures is to capture reality as accurately as possible. Mastering photography should train me see light and detail the same way Monet did for his painting. That might sound like a Zen koan conflict though, since Impressionist paintings seem far from accurate. Monet saw his landscapes with greater detail than any camera sensor and he understood what he saw – he just heavily compressed his final output, creating the essential paint pixels to give the impression of what he wanted us to see.

Monet could give the impression of a pretty girl with just a few strokes of his brush. What the lady at work wanted for her web portrait was just enough pixels to give a good impression of her image. She wanted enough detail so people could recognize her.

It is human nature to want to look good, but philosophically I’m fascinated by the RAW mode of reality, and I’m downright intrigued by our society’s rather neurotic compulsion to change how things look. We want High Definition TV for nature shows, but we want Photoshop photos of people, especially women.

I’m not a good looking guy, and my rosacea makes taking appealing photographs of me very hard. However, everyone I know has to look at me and they see far more detail than any photograph. So why should I pretend to look different and use the clone tool to even out my skin tone? It’s pretty obvious that we don’t look at ourselves, and when women look in the mirror they start dabbing make-up on their faces and when they see photographs they don’t mind at all if the photographer uses some Photoshop make-up on their images.

This is not an ethical conundrum but I can’t help but wonder if it’s not a psychological problem. On the web people often like to be anonymous, and prefer avatars or photos of anything but themselves to stand in for their likeness. Yet, try to imagine a world were women’s magazines only used RAW mode untouched photos and movie and television actors and actresses looked real rather than made-up?

Many years ago, in my late forties, I saw a Playboy Magazine for the first time in a very long time. I was shocked by the photos of the naked girls because they looked like faked photos of Barbie dolls being passed off as real flesh and blood women. And it was more than a visual shock, but a below-the-belt scare that made me feel like I had ED. The instant magic I felt as a teenager looking at Playboy was definitely not there. We knew the girls were airbrushed back in the 1960s, but there was enough impressionistic detail to make the centerfolds trick our brains into thinking we were seeing real girls. Obviously I’m older and my testosterone decline has caused the magic of paper women to fail.

Aesthetically though, at least for me, heavily Photoshopped images of women are no longer beautiful female humans but Jessica Rabbit clones. Not only that, but those cartoon images are what women, and maybe younger men, want to see plastered on the faces of women in reality. What’s Invasion-of-the-Body-Snatchers terrifying is an ad I saw in a photography magazine for a program that does this same kind of cartooning magic to kids. Talk about pod people!

The desire to make women look good in photos and the mirror is really a deep down desire to look young. So I have to ask isn’t it insane to change the look of actual youth? We’re moving into some weird territory here. We no longer want to pretend to look young, but animated. Is this a rejection of being human? I think we need to get both real and human. Maybe we should even use sexuality as a yardstick. In the real world a good looking women with wrinkles produces wood for me whereas women who follow in Tammy Faye Baker’s footsteps do not.

I think the beauty pendulum needs to swing back towards what’s real. I’m not saying that because I’m homely and want to promote my kind, but because psychologically I think we need to stay closer to reality. Fantasy is fun for Harry Potter books, but acting like magic exists is unhealthy. If everyone grows up seeing non-human fantasy characters in the movies, on television and in the magazines, what is reality going to be like in their mind’s eye?

JWH

How Audible.com Changed My Life

Back at the beginning of 2002, I joined Audible.com, signing up for their two books a month plan and getting a free Otis digital audio player. Audible.com sells audio books online and designed a system so their digital audio books worked with the emerging technology of digital audio players. This coincided with the rise of the iPod and made Audible.com revolutionary in that it made audio books, after the learning curve of setting up the equipment, easier to use than paper books. I now carry my iPod Nano with me at all times, and listening to a book is just a matter of plugging in an ear-bud and pressing play. I never carried a book around like that. I keep a log of books I read and before Audible I was reading on average 1-2 books a month, and after Audible I was average a book a week. Not only that, but I was “reading” from a much wider selection of subjects and genres. So I was improving on quantity and quality.

I’ve often heard people gush about books that changed their life. I always found that hard to believe, but I actually believe my life would be different if I hadn’t joined Audible. Oh, I’d be working at the same job and married to the same woman, but for the last six years I have been more excited about reading than any time in my life. Being a lifelong bookworm, that’s a pretty big statement. Joining Audible.com caused four paradigm shifts in habits.

Learning How to Read All Over Again

Switching from eyeballs to ears as my primary conduit for sending words into my brain taught me I have always been a very bad reader. This was a bit of a shock because I had always prided myself on being a good reader. I believed that because I loved to read, read lots of books and read them fast, it made me a great reader. Boy was I wrong. Switching to audio books showed me I was skimming rather than reading. The dying urge to know what was going to happen forced me to focus on dialog and plot at the expense of narrative details and voice.

Listening to a good book read by a great narrator showed me how much drama and characterization I had been missing. Listening at a reading pace taught me to take in the whole book and I began to value the narrative parts, seeing more details, making the settings vivid and allowing me to imagine what the characters looked like and acted. For some reason hearing words, like the names of colors or the names of objects, made me visualize what those words were pointing to in the real world. The shift was dramatic, as dramatic as being stoned and listening to music for the first time.

It really is a matter of concentration. Listening gave me the time to concentrate on what the author was intending. Since I’ve learned this trick I’ve been able to go back to reading with my eyes and read slower. What I’ve learned is eye reading and ear reading emphasize different ways to learn and experience books. If I want to study a book I have to read with my eyes, if I want to experience a book I listen. For pure reading enjoyment listening is the way to go but if I find a book I want embrace fully, I also have to read it.

Over the years I have also learned that I have been training my ears and mind to audio and I now hear a book way better than I did six years ago when I switched from reading to listening. I’m also improving my reading ability. I didn’t expect that as a person in my fifties.

I would say my old way of reading a novel I took in maybe 10% of what the author intended. Listening bumps that up to 25%. Reading and listening takes things to 35%. Multiple readings, with both eyes and ears, improve on those figures, but I imagine it takes a lifetime of study to really go beyond mining 50% of the gold in a great novel. My guess is there are highly educated readers with refined minds and powerful abilities to concentrate that can do what I do in one reading, but my experiences of the last six years has also taught me my limitations. I am a humbler bookworm.

Learning How to Widen My Reading Tastes

In 2002 when I switched to audio books, the audio book industry was far smaller than it is now. Thus Audible.com had a much smaller selection of books. Best sellers and classics were the top choices for publishers when deciding which books to give the audio book production treatment. When I joined Audible I expected to get the same kind of books I was reading: science fiction.

My first two selections were The Menace from Earth by Robert A. Heinlein and Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson, two books I had already read and loved. To say that I was blown away by listening to them would be an understatement. I hate to use curse words in my public writing, but the only way to convey this is to say I passionately thought to myself, “What the fuck!! How the hell did I miss so much? These are fantastic books!!!”

My immediate desire was to buy all my favorite books in unabridged audio and listen to them. The trouble was Audible didn’t offer them. I got Starship Troopers, another Heinlein novel, and Seeing in the Dark by Timothy Ferris, a nonfiction book about amateur astronomers. I discovered the magic worked just as well with nonfiction.

Okay, with my next two monthly credits I decided to be brave and just try something other than science fiction. What the heck, two books were only $16 at the time. I selected Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier. I had been forced to read the Dickens book in high school and it was my model when I thought of classics. I had no idea who Tracy Chevalier was or what her book was like, but it came highly recommended. Well Mikey liked it! Turns out, Great Expectations is one of my all-time favorite books – what a discovery.

Then I tried White Noise by Don DeLillo and The Western Canon by Harold Bloom and I began to get the big picture of what I’d had been missing all my life by living in the ghetto of science fiction. Being a hard-core science fiction fan had always prejudiced me against fantasy. I got His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman on Audible and paid a rather large sum for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on CDs from Amazon.com. I was happily eating crow.

I then tried books I would never have thought to read, like Moby Dick, Sister Carrie and Pride and Prejudice. I’ve always hated long books, but I discovered I could handle long stories if I listened to them, like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. These really are books I would never read in book form. I never had the patience for classics or long books. Audio changed that.

Finding New Times to Read

Then I discovered The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I had bought the hard cover edition when it came out because it got such fantastic reviews but I never found time to read it. It was about then I discovered listening allowed me to “read” far more books than I could read with my eyes. Finally I had time to read best-sellers and all those books on the front tables in my favorite bookstores. I had always assumed best-sellers were the fast food of the literary world, but again I learned I was wrong, at least some of the time.

Those by-the-door display tables held the books people were talking about at work. The ones that got reviewed and their authors got to appear on TV. I finally tuned in and found what I was missing. I got to do this because I was now reading a book a week by multitasking with listening.

I cut off one earpiece to my stereo headphones, so the Y-shaped wire was now one straight wire. I kept my player in my shirt pocket from the time I dressed until I got undressed to go to bed at night. I wrapped the wire around my neck and dropped the ear bud end back in the same shirt pocket. It was my new geek tie. My wife thinks I’m dorky-looking and gets embarrassed seeing me in public, but the people at work didn’t complain. I’m a computer guy, so they don’t expect much from our attire.

From then on I learned how to read on the run – to multitask. I listen to books whenever I’m doing something that doesn’t require my full mental attention. I listen when I walk and exercise. I listen when I eat alone or wait in line. I listen when I do the dishes or pick up around the house. I listen when I drive. Using only one ear piece makes this much safer. I listen at work and while doing boring tasks like reformatting a hard drive and reinstalling software, or setting up a new server, or running around putting patches on fifty machines.

I got so good at multitasking reading I was even interviewed for the New York Times and got a tiny mention in the paper where they noted the number and variety of books I was reading because of Audible.com.

Connecting with Other Readers

Finally, Audible.com has brought me together with a lot of other readers, both online and at work. Because I wore my dorky wire tie, people would ask me about it. When I explained they were amazed and many of them joined Audible. They became pod people too and we ended up reading the same books. Audio books became the focus for a lot of new friendships. I also joined a Yahoogroup for Audible fans and met other audio book fans and even some of the people who publish and narrate audio books. We even got up a book club at work. Now when I go to parties I have a lot more books I can talk about. When I meet new people I’m willing to buy and listen to books they suggest and this opens up new lines of communications.

I used to be mostly a solitary bookworm, but now I’m a social bookworm. That’s a big difference. If I had stuck to science fiction as my main reading all of this wouldn’t have happened. I had science fiction reading friends, but they were few and far between. Actually, this shift in taste has moved me away from my science fiction world. I’ve encouraged some of my old SF buddies to try other books but they haven’t. You’d think reading with an iPod would be science fictional but that geeky quality doesn’t appeal.

Most people don’t want to change. I have found changing can be exciting.

I would say the majority of readers I know stick to paper books as their main source of reading. Some have added audio books as supplemental reading and some are half and half readers and listeners, usually reading at home and listening in the car. I’ve yet to meet anyone who carries their iPod with them everywhere.

I’ve also tried to get some of my hardcore bookworm friends to multitask so they could consume even more books, but audio book magic doesn’t work with everyone. A few are learning to multitask read. It’s the books and stories that are making me more friends. So I have to give Audible.com credit for helping me try a great selection of books that helped me connect with other people, and not being a cyborg bookworm.

Adapting to the Future

I’d like to think I could learn from this unexpected discovery and apply it to new experiences. Blogging is helping me learn to write and think, but I don’t know if it will have the transformative changing power that shifting to audio books have had. Strangely enough, writing is an anti-social activity, even though it’s all about communication. A blog is like a public diary, but few people read mine, and it generates little social communication. I value blog writing as a way to practice concentration and help fight off Alzheimer’s.

Computers and the Internet have made a major change in my life but it’s more about how I process information. I don’t think computers have made me see cognitively different like switching to listening to books. I’ve been reading with an eBook for years, and I now have a Kindle but I don’t think that will be revolutionary either. The Kindle is like a magnifying glass that lets me read easier, but I don’t read more. I am experimenting with putting Audible.com books on my Kindle and reading and listening at the same time to see if it causes better memorization.

Becoming a bookworm when I was a child was the major transformative experience of my life, but I’d have to credit Audible.com as a powerful second stage booster that has launched me into orbit. It’s hard to imagine another new technology coming along like it, but imagine what it would be like if my reading was moved from orbiting Earth to trajectory to Mars.

And I can see that it might not involve technology too. I’ve often thought if I could train myself to write a good novel or short story it might teach me a lot more about reading. That would take a lot of discipline I don’t have. I try from time to time, but can never achieve escape velocity.

As a new humble bookworm I know I might not ever get any better at reading and comprehension, but then I never expected digital audio players and audio books to come along and change things. Who knows what the future might bring.

JWH