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Sunday, 23 January 2011 09:42

A thought came to me while reading the second book of Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games" series. While I'm enjoying it, really enjoying it (I'll review it sometime), I did find myself focusing on the prose. Yes, I understand it's a juvenile series (at least I hope it is). I understand that the writing is pretty basic. No clever flow, no startling visual imagery, no insightful character development, no creative language use. The story (while good) is just shipped to us, a simple description of events.

She's not alone in this - consider top-selling general-audience authors and you have Clive Cussler, John Grisham, Stephen King and the like. They pound out books that their huge audiences suck in through their eyeballs. But I think of writers from the past I've enjoyed and reread such as Wells, Sabatini, Twain and Dumas, and the difference becomes clear.

Modern writers write throw-away books. They don't expect their audiences to buy a leather-bound copy of their works, to reread them and study them and quote them. They are paperbackers, producing work you'll likely leave on the seat in the airport when you're through. And that's sad, because if we don't reflect on our literary tales, we'll perhaps not reflect upon our lives, either.

Now, I'm not a film critic (but I can be critical of films) but it appears that just the opposite is happening. Films used to be throwaway efforts. Not that there aren't stupid films both then and now, but the shooting was far more casual. Watched a couple of old flicks last night - "Monsoon" and "Borderline" -  and there was very little directing in them. The actors appeared to be standing where they'd walked onto the sets, there were few interestingly staged shots, and groups stand in theatrical half-circles, speaking their lines in careful order.

Contrast that to movies now, where every shot is considered. We're over people's shoulders, we're zooming in, moving about. And action shots - even given the technological improvements - you have low shots, sweeping shots, slow motion shots, CGI, slow-rolling fireballs, slow-rolling car crashes, zooming, foreshortening, everything that goes into action porn.

These movies are made to be watched and rewatched, to be slowed down or paused on our plasma screens, to be studied in HD detail.

Once we found insight in literature and popped out for five cents for Buck Rogers. Now it appears the opposite is true. We read junk novels for simple amusement and find our hearts stirred by visual imagery.

But is there an equivalence between a turn of phrase which reveals a simple truth verses Rambo releasing an arrow in slow motion?

Last Updated on Sunday, 23 January 2011 10:25
 
Kindle missionaries PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 09 January 2011 21:02

D'ja see that new Kindle ad where cool looking people tote kindles about in bike baskets and the back pockets of stone-washed jeans? Young people all looking so active. And the only thing they aren't shown doing?

Reading.

Because the thing about kindles is not quietly reading on it, it's about bragging about how quickly you can get your books, how cheaply, how many books it holds. Ever had a kindle-ninny tell you what they were reading? No, its just about their device.

Really, how many times do you have to say, "So, just what the fuck were you reading on your slab?" and watch them have to shift from toy-boasting to literature (two different conversations entirely).

Personally, I think most of these kindle-ninnies don't really read - they just look at their reflection in their tiny little screen like a parakeet ogling its reflection in its cage mirror, savoring that they can appear trendy and book-smart in one go.

Pretty bird. Pretty bird.

 

Last Updated on Sunday, 09 January 2011 21:18
 
Live Free or Die (review) PDF Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 14 December 2010 00:00

You know Iran can’t have a nuclear power plant. But did you know Disney could?

This pissed me off a decade ago, so I wrote a scathing novel about theme parks growing into “duchies” with their own laws, courts, and (it turned out) armies. And as I wrote it, I found myself really chewing on those enablers of theme parks, the shambling middle class. With their annual passes and their comfortable entertainment expectations, my novel did everything it could to give them a wake-up slap, a cosmic black eye.

One agent asked me, “So, if you piss off everyone, who’s going to read it?”

Evidently, John Ringo’s agent didn’t provide such advice for him for “Live Free and Die”, his new sci-fi yarn.

I bought it because it looked “Battlefield Earth”y; Our planet is suddenly thrust into the tumultuous alien-packed galaxy. Cites get clobbered, the president bows to their might, humans are vassals. Okay, fine. But then the true evil of the galaxy is revealed.

Liberals.

Yes, it turns out that the President (identified as Obama in an obvious slip) is willing to grovel. And the clever hero, when faced with the threat of human cities being destroyed from space, taunts the aliens to go ahead because they are populated with lefties. The two evil races are socialist and communist, and the good race (free-market merchents, of course) is in decline. When the hero asks one of their corporate princes (a creature who raised himself from the gutter to rule a commercial empire, the usual conservative fairy tale) how this came about, he is told that, yes, their empire is slowly falling rotting from the liberals within it.

I enjoyed the hero’s rise to power, his clever manipulations of a unique earth export (maple syrup) into unlimited wealth. I also liked his applications of space mirrors to provide everything from defense to a unique way to produce a battle station hull. But every page it seemed, there was another slap at progressives and liberals.

Given that it insulted my beliefs, I’m not at all charitable towards this book. In that, I’ll point out that the aliens were not very alien at all (rather Star-Warish in that their society mirrors ours). Furthermore, the space battles really weren’t tactically interesting, any more than a game of space invaders is. Much of the technology is a little baffling. But overall, I stuck with it to see just how it would play out.

Turns out, I discovered, that this is the first of a series.

This is my stop. I get off here.

Last Updated on Saturday, 18 December 2010 18:28
 
War of the Worlds (review) PDF Print E-mail
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Thursday, 09 December 2010 00:00

What can I say. If it wasn't for H.G. and his nightmarish vision of apocalypse, I might have become some sort of illiterate dummy.

As it was, when I was about eleven, I read below par. It didn't interest me, I didn't care, it was boring, yada. Then my mom (bless her heart) sat me down every night and made me read for 30 minutes. Didn't matter what. The TV guide, the back of a cereal box, anything as long as it had words on it.

So I read a little of this and a little of that from the school library. Then one day I fetched up a copy of "War of the Worlds" illustrated by Edward Gorey (how could I miss it with its purple-sky cover - Air-Sea rescue would spot it). Honestly, I think I was captivated by the tiny little flaming people running about a tripod's feet on the back cover. Pretty creepy. So I sat down and started to read.

For those of you who have never read this classic, heard the infamous radio broadcast, saw any of the hack-job movies, or have lived with a bucket over your head, WOTW (as I affectionately call this book I've read over twenty times) is the classic science fiction "role reversal" tale. In his time, Wells was disturbed by British Imperialism, particularly the extinction of the Tasmanians whom the Empire had wiped out in over a bloody half-century. He wondered what it would be like if our race (and his nation) suddenly experienced the same pitiless extinction.

And so the Martians arrive in their cylinders, literally shot to Earth from some massive Mars-based gun. Heedless of the danger, the populace and the military dither. And then emerge the fighting machines, huge tripods that stride about with their heat rays (you japanimation robot freaks should perk up at this, for what is a tripod other than massive power armor for a tentacled being?) There are a series of grim battles, the gassing of London, the horrible flight of its inhabitants, the Empire's final act of defiance (alas, brave Thunderchild), and then its the end. England has fallen. The second part of the book finds the narrator stumbling about, growing weaker, hungrier, depressed, driven to the point of suicide. Then, "after all the devices of mankind had failed", the Martians die from bacteria (which they'd removed from Mars eons ago).

The true brilliance of this book was the remarkable things it said to a child in his early teens, one weaned on the principles of western storytelling and culture.  Each night, as I burrowed deeper into the science-poetry of Wells (for his writing is nothing short of beautiful), my youthful outlook was burnished by the cold realities of the invasion. To wit...

1) Humans are decent, thoughtful, and communal: Actually, the first fatality of the war is a fellow who is butted into the pit by the gawking mob, to be eaten alive. And later, when the heat ray sweeps the common, that same mob (now fleeing) crushes a woman and some children in a narrow spot in the road, where they are left to slowly die in the darkness. Wow.

2) Heroes act heroically: Our hero, when the heat ray is first employed, gaps like a rube. Only the fact that the Martians decided they'd shocked and awed enough and shut off the beam kept WOTW from being a very short story. The hero panics, frets, dreams of revenge, and pretty much reacts in very human ways through the entire book. In that, he was the first real character I ever encountered as a young reader.

3) Strategy and resolve will overcome technology: The humans set up a nifty artillery ambush at Weybridge and splash a Martian "to the four winds of heaven". Before falling back, the Martians really let loose, burning the town, the defenders, the refugees, everything down to the bedrock. Later, in the defense of mother-city London, the humans employ every battery they have, ready to stand or die. The Martians simply gas them like wasps without breaking into a sweat.

4) Last stands always work: The ironclad Thunderchild makes a heroic defense of a refugee ship. It clobbers two Martians. Hope soars! Then it's sunk. Along with rest of the fleet (implied). And then the Martians fly overhead in their new flying machine. Its over, folks. Please disconnect your speakers before driving to the exits.

5) Gott mit uns: Not only do churches get blasted all over the place (a tripod even falls over one at Shepperton), it's the curate who gets high marks for whining, whimpering, and finally going into such a state of loud rapture he's put down with the blunt end of an axe. You're not suppose to put this in books, are you?

6) The vision of tomorrow: The visionary (the artilleryman, a practical blunt fellow) offers the hopeless narrator a vision of the future, of a brave new world that will ascend to challenge our Martian overlords. The problem is, he's too much of a lazy lout to do it. I love the line about "the gulf between his dreams and his powers".

7) The hero will prevail: Actually, the hero is on the verge of suicide when he realizes that the Martians are no more.

If any of you Harry-Potter-happy-ending fans are still with us, you are probably wondering why anyone would enjoy such gritty reality. Well, that's just it. To a young child on the tail end of the happy, prosperous fifties (actually, it was nearer the end of the sixties and the world was already changing), it was like a breath of fresh air. It's the thrill of the thing, like getting on a roller coaster that has never been tested, with no assurance of inspection or insurance. Characters die. Cities burn. The human race is driven to extinction. With this bleakness comes a freedom. The story comes with no guarantee. There might not be a happy ending. Conventions do not exist. Clichés have no anchor point.

In the final chapter we travel with the narrator by train, looking out the window at the slowly healing land, the wheels of the carriage rattling across the newly-lain rails, reflecting on our place in the universe (no longer lounging on our throne atop everything). And we, as readers, can sigh and reflect that we have truly been there and back again, that we have survived, and that we will carry this story with us, always.

 

Last Updated on Tuesday, 14 December 2010 19:09
 
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