The To-Be-Read Shelf

These are the books that are currently waiting to be read. Some of them have been waiting a long time.

These are the books that are currently waiting to be read. Some of them have been waiting a long time.

I have a lot of books waiting to be read. This isn’t all of them, but I’ve decided they’re the first ones on the list. Mostly because they fill up the shelf. Also, this doesn’t count the book I’m currently reading, which is a collection of Gasoline Alley strips from 1918, before Skeezix got added to the cast.

Going left to right, and summing up as quickly as I can:

Friday Night Lights: The book that spawned the movie and television show. It’s supposed to be really good! By Buzz Bissinger, who was a good sportswriter, then a guy who complained about nerds on the Internet, then a guy who wore a lot of leather clothing.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: I have heard that this is really quite readable. I took Latin in high school, but the only parts of Roman history that I’m strong on are Caesar’s Gallic campaigns. I need the education!

The Road: Everyone says this is an amazing book. I’ve had it sitting around for years. I’m hoping that having it staring at me will give me some motivation.

Finnegans Wake: Speaking of snob appeal, I really want to have read this book. Actually reading it is another story, because it’s…not really in English. It actually kind of reminds me of the way John Lennon wrote in In His Own Write, except that it just keeps going.

A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake: Naturally, you can’t just read Finnegans Wake on your own. Seriously, it’s impossible. So this book goes basically line by line and explains all the cross-language puns and stuff. I think my plan is to read one page of Finnegans Wake and then have this book explain it, then read the page again. Repeat until I’m done. I’ve had this plan for a really long time, though, so I wouldn’t hold my breath.

No Logo: It’s about globalization and consumerism. I admit I feel a little uncomfortable with how many of my clothes have logos on them.

Strange Tales of the Century: A sourcebook for the RPG Spirit of the Century. The part I love is an exhaustive rundown of all the standard characters found in adventure pulp fiction. It’s by Jess Nevins, who did those great annotations for League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

The Time Traveler’s Almanac: A collection of time travel stories. Fun!

EE “Doc” Smith: The four Skylark of Space books. Classic science fiction from 1928.

Steal Like a Artist: It’s about creativity. And it’s short!

Science and Sanity: Okay, Here’s the thing about this. I don’t know if Alfred Korzybski was a nut or not. I know Robert Heinlein thought he was a genius and worked a lot of Korzybski’s ideas into his writing. So did Asimov. And so did Robert Anton Wilson. And, um, so did L. Ron Hubbard. So this is a secretly influential work and I’d like to know what it actually says. I think this is the book I’ve had longest without actually reading it.

The New Annotated Lovecraft: As you may have heard, H.P. Lovecraft is a problematic writer. He had a lot of interesting ideas and was very influential on the fields of science fiction and horror. He was also very racist, which probably led to his general themes of xenophobia. And his writing is sometimes comically ornate. I think the best way to come to terms with his stuff is to put it in context, which Leslie Klinger should be great at. His Annotated Sherlock Holmes was tremendous.

Yes, Please: Amy Poehler’s great.

Do Not Sell At Any Price: The world of people who collect absurdly rare 78 RPM records.

A Song in the Dark: About super-early movie musicals, right after movies had sound. I love this era, because people were just figuring out what could be done with movies and they made some really odd choices sometimes. I’ve read this once already, but I need to go back through and make a list of movies to watch.

Li’l Abner: The first two years of the comic strip Li’l Abner. It’s supposed to be a brilliant strip, but all I really know about is the sage musical. I got this after reading American Cornball, which referenced Li’l Abner a lot.

Playing at the World: This is an amazingly detailed look at the origins of D&D. I’ve read most of it, but I need to buckle down and get through it. Play-by-mail Diplomacy was very important to the concept of pretending to be a historical figure in charge of an army, apparently.

Play Unsafe: The thesis of this book is that if you’re running an RPG, you shouldn’t prepare at all. Just improv your way through it. I really want to do this!

Complete Book of Chess Strategy: I feel that I ought to be better at chess than I am.

Creativity, Inc.: Everyone says this was great. I’m not 100% sure what it’s about. Creativity, probably. Right?

The Bone Clocks: The author of Cloud Atlas (which I liked for its ambition) wrote another book that got critical acclaim.

A Curious Man: A biography of Robert Ripley, of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” In his youth, he did a lot of traveling, then he was a world-famous cartoonist. So I bet he had an interesting life.

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Recent Reading: American Cornball

Christopher Miller’s American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny
 comes very close to being a book written especially for me. It’s about one of my favorite topics: things that used to be funny but mostly aren’t anymore. There are sections on Door-to-Door Salesmen and Outhouses and Sweet Adeline. Basically, if it was hilarious to people within a couple decades of 1930, it probably makes no sense to anyone in 2015. There are whole movies made up of these tropes, and most of them are really weird.

The main filter through which these tropes are examined is another of my favorite things: old comic strips. When I say “wife beating used to be considered hilarious,” your eyebrows go up. But what about Andy Capp? That was one of the four or five standard “jokes” in that strip. It was eventually balanced off by the wife beating up the husband, which happens in a lot more strips.

I spent several happy hours reading about Hats, Women’s (large, often in the way) and Icemen. If you have my tastes, this is a great book.

Having said that, I do have two complaints. First, the author is really into Freudian interpretations of stuff. And I got pretty tired of being told that everything was a phallic symbol. Sometimes a squirting flower or an exploding cigar is just a squirting flower or an exploding cigar. I don’t mind it coming up a couple of times, but if you read the book straight through, it comes up a lot.

My other complaint is about a baffling failure of research. The “Suicide” section (Suicide used to be hilarious to people, especially right after the Wall Street Crash of 1929), starts with this:

Eighty years ago, Mickey Mouse had his own comic strip, ostensibly the work of Walt Disney himself. If the Disney corporation ever authorizes a reprint of the strip, it’s safe to say they’ll cut the sequence from October 1930 in which Mickey, despondent after being dumped by Minnie, attempts suicide several days in a row — by gas, by gun, by jumping off a bridge.

Well…the Mickey Mouse comic strip has been reprinted, in some very nice hardback books. I have two of them, and they’re a really interesting portrayal of Mickey Mouse, who’s been kind of stripped of personality in the last 85 years. They’re published by Fantagraphics, and they’re great. I particularly draw your attention to book one, Race to Death Valley, in which the attempted-suicide strips start on page 80.

Now, here’s the thing. Race to Death Valley came out in 2011, and there was a lot of hullabloo about it. If you like old-timey comic strips at all, I can’t imagine not being aware of it. And yet, American Cornball, a well-researched book, which came out in September 2014, doesn’t know it happened. In fact, it confidently asserts that it couldn’t happen. It’s just weird. At first I thought that maybe American Cornball was based on a blog, which would explain the occasional repeated fact and missed fact, but it doesn’t seem to be. It’s weird.

But that should not deter you. If you’re the sort of person who already knows what Mickey Mouse strips are in the first Fantagraphics collection, American Cornball is all about stuff you’ll like.

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The Telecast of the Creative Arts Emmys

On Sunday night, while everyone else was watching the Video Music Awards or the Simpsons marathon or the True Blood Finale or Masters of Sex or, I guess, not watching television at all, I watched the telecast of the Creative Arts Emmys.

The Creative Arts Emmys are the awards that aren’t important enough to be given out during the regular ceremony. But they include things that I think are interesting, like “Best Animated Series” (Bob’s Burgers!) and Outstanding Guest Actress on a Comedy Series (Uzo Aduba for Orange Is the New Black, and good for her, even if I think its weird that she’s listed as just a “guest actres” and also the show isn’t really a comedy).

What makes the telecast odd is that the actual ceremony was a couple of weeks ago, and it took four hours. And it’s been edited down to two for broadcast. That means someone had to make tough decisions about what the essential elements are. So here’s what’s included:

Presenter Banter: Every word of scripted joshing is included. It’s mostly delivered better than on the big-time awards show because people are a lot more relaxed. Allison Janney stumbled over her teleprompter because she couldn’t read a year, and she just stopped and admitted what happened.

The Names of the Categories: This is significant, because a lot of these categories are very specific, and if you’re trying to trim for time, you might consider shortening something like “Art Direction for a Contemporary Program (Half-Hour or Less).” But no! I have to assume that these category names have been argued over for years, so nobody feels comfortable altering them on the fly.

The Names of the Winners: But not the nominees! It goes Banter, Category Name, Winner. And really, it’s “The team from American Horror Story: Coven,” not the names of all the people involved. Their names appear on screen. Briefly. There were a couple of categories (like the Outstanding Guest Actress ones) where the nominees were listed, but it was not the norm.

Acceptance Speeches: Sort of. Some of the acceptance speeches are replaced by very brief backstage interviews, and the ones that do make it into the show are brutally edited down to one or two sentences.

And…that’s it! There are no songs; there are no production numbers; there is no host’s monologue; there is no host. It’s just two hours of basically uninterrupted award-giving. In the first fifteen minutes, I think there were more awards given out than in the entire Video Music Awards. But there were fewer rock stars.

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Reviewing the New Player’s Handbook

I love getting a new Player’s Handbook. I remember the first one I ever got (the AD&D version, some time in 1984 or so. I’ve had every version of D&D. I’ve also lost every version and had to reacquire the books. Right now, I have everything (except the newest one) in these fancy Collector’s Editions that Wizards of the Coast released:

The core books for all versions of D&D except the original. But including Basic D&D!

The core books for all versions of D&D except the original. But including Basic D&D!

Does that include the expensive rerelease of the very first edition of D&D? What do you think?

The original version of D&D, which has conveniently been rereleased.

The original version of D&D, which has conveniently been rereleased.

Also, I’m a player in the current campaign on the Total Party Kill podcast, in which I play a Tiefling Wizard wandering about in Undermountain. It’s Fourth Edition. Okay, enough bragging about my credentials. (Or is it? I didn’t even get to the part about how my Vespa’s license plate is “D20”!) I got the newest version of the Player’s Handbook and I’m going to share my thoughts on it. This is not a review of D&D as a whole; it’s just this one book.

First, the cover.

The cover of the Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook.

The cover of the Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook.

I’m not a huge fan. I think it looks a little weird to have the art go all the way to the edges like that. And I think it’s a huge mistake to not call this “Fifth Edition.” They’re trying to just call it “Dungeons and Dragons,” but they’re going to regret that in a few years when they want to replace it with something new. And all the customers are calling it Fifth Edition anyway.

Inside, the first thing I checked was the Alignment system. It’s back to the way it ought to be, with all nine alignments. For some reason, Fourth Edition didn’t have all of them. That’s not something that needs to be reinvented, and I’m glad they returned to the way things ought to be. Although I should point out that when D&D started, it was just the forces of Law fighting the forces of Chaos. The Good/Evil axis came in later.

Checking in on character creation, there’s still a die-rolling option. It’s not recommended, but it’s in there. I prefer randomness when it comes to D&D characters, so I’m glad its an option. No one wants to go back to the days of “roll 3d6 and write them down in order and that’s your character” though. No one but me. The stats are in the modern order: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, Charisma. In my head, they’re still ordered like in AD&D: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, Charisma. I acknowledge that the new current order (which I think of as the “new” order in spite of it being decades old) makes more sense.

The available races are pretty much what I expected, covering all the old standards (including Half-Orcs) and the modern additions (Teiflings and Dragonborn). I like the Human page:

This is what a human looks like.

This is what a human looks like.

I realize Wizards of the Coast doesn’t have a 100% perfect record with diversity, keep in mind that they decided to illustrate the concept of “Generic Human” with a black woman.

Checking in on classes, I see that although “Fighter” still remains as an option, there’s no generic “Magic-User” or “Thief.” The latter is a subsection of “Rogue” (which also contains assassins), and magical types are Sorcerers, Wizards or Warlocks. Most of the things I think of as subclasses of Fighter are here as their own classes: Barbarian, Monk, Paladin, Ranger. There’s also Bard, which has historically had difficulty making a lot of sense.

The classes all have recommendations for throwing together a quickie generic version, which I approve of. They’ve also gone away from the Fourth Edition system where every class felt (in my opinion) exactly the same, with the same At-Will/Encounter/Daily system. Now, you can have spells if you’re a wizard or you can just smash things up. You can be a fighter who’s a “Champion” (benefit: improved rolls) or you can be an “Eldritch Knight” if you insist on casting spells. I much prefer this setup, because it makes the classes feel more different to me.

Moving past class, there’s the section that got a lot of press earlier, where the book explicitly encourages players to look beyond the regular gender binary.

If this had been left out of the rules, you know somebody would have insisted that your character isn't allowed to be gay because "Dwarves wouldn't do that."

If this had been left out of the rules, you know somebody would have insisted that your character isn’t allowed to be gay because “Dwarves wouldn’t do that.”

That’s neat, but it’s been well covered already. Moving on.

In the spirit of “A bunch of random charts,” there’s a d100 table of random trinkets a character can start with. Finally, a reason to be carrying around a petrified mouse!

Combat has changed, of course. Now, each player gets a Move and an Action on their turn. You can split the Move up so you move two squares, do something (probably smashing a goblin with a hammer), and then move back. There are a bunch of things that give bonus actions. It seems pretty straightforward to me. There are also “flourishes” that don’t require actions, and the distinction is somewhat vague.

There’s a thing called “advantage” and “disadvantage,” where you roll two dice and take either the higher or the lower one.

Now: magic!

For people who like fiddly nonsense, Material Components are back! This is the requirement to have, say, “a tiny bell and a piece of fine silver wire” if you want to cast the Alarm spell. They were gone from Fourth Edition, possibly because every class effectively had spells, and it would have been weird to require only magical types to carry around bat fur. I’m glad to see it, although I personally don’t know anyone that ever paid attention to material components.

More interestingly to me, there are spells that don’t have any immediate effect on combat. And I am delighted! My biggest objection to Fourth Edition is that every single thing was directed toward combat. So every level, a wizard chooses spells that are described strictly in terms of what they do during a fight. That just does not feel as magical as mixing in the occasional Clairvoyance or something. Most of the new spells also have combat applications, but they’re not solely combat-oriented. I like to have a Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Mansion available once in a while.

And then there’s Appendix E.

This is my new reading list. Well, one of them.

This is my new reading list. Well, one of them.

My favorite thing about the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide was Appendix N, which was a big list of books that Gary Gygax liked. It was supposed to be the sources for D&D, but now I’m reading Playing at the World, which I believe is going to make its own assertions about the origins. Anyway, I’m a sucker for lists of things. I even started reading the books of Appendix N, but I never got past this announcement of the project.has

For the new D&D, the Player’s Handbook has Appendix E, which contains everything from the old Appendix N and adds a lot more books that have been written since. So there’s Terry Pratchett and Patrick Rothfuss and George R.R. Martin and so forth. And less famous people like Saladin Ahmed, whose Throne of the Crescent Moon I thought was a lot of fun. And there are also authors I haven’t read! So this is going to be fun.

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Why Scarecrow Video Is Important

I’m going to tell you why Scarecrow Video is important. When I’m done, I’m going to link to the Kickstarter that’s giving them a chance to stay alive. I’m also going to link to it right here, in case this introduction has already sold you. It seems unlikely, but maybe I’m just incredibly convincing today.

Scarecrow Video is a video store in Seattle, Washington. It’s the biggest video store in the world, with over 120,000 titles available for rent. That’s more titles than Netflix has. It’s more titles than anyone has. That’s so many titles that the simple task of having a space big enough to hold all of them is a challenge. Something’s got to be done, and something is: we’ve already got the best video store in the country. Now let’s have the best cinema archive in the world.

It’s important that Scarecrow’s collection be kept together, and the way that’s going to happen is for the store to become a nonprofit cinema archive. That can happen if the Kickstarter gets $100,000. There’s a whole plan put together, where they’ll be all buddied up with Seattle’s Grand Illusion Theatre and the people from the Alamo Drafthouse chain.

Now I’m going to try to explain why this is important.

Last week, Robin Williams died. A lot of people wanted to watch Aladdin and discovered that the Disney Vault doesn’t allow that just at the moment. If you don’t have a DVD of Aladdin sitting around, there’s no way to legitimately stream the movie. You’re just out of luck. In fact, the movies available on Netflix are constantly coming and going as studio deals shift and change. I agree that it’s convenient to use a streaming service or several. I not only use Netflix, Amazon, and Amazon Prime, I even write a column about television shows available from them. But there’s nowhere near 100% coverage of all movies ever.

“Okay,” I can hear you saying. “I’ll just pirate the movies I want to see. Everything is available online forever, so who cares?” Well, congratulations on your decision to live outside the law. It’s very Thunderdome of you. The thing is, that’s just not true. Scarecrow has movies that never moved from VHS to DVD. You think someone’s gone to the work of digitizing every one of these VHS-only movies and then putting them on a server just so you’d be able to steal them a few years later?

And while I’m at it, I suspect you’re being a little US-centric in your assumption that everything’s online.

A tiny sliver of Scarecrow's selection of movies made outside the United States

A tiny sliver of Scarecrow’s selection of movies made outside the United States

Really? You think there’s a lot of Macedonian cinema available on your favorite Torrent site? Somebody digitized this VHS-only movie from Mali? Are you sure?

Okay, now let’s talk about the actual danger. Film is a very young medium. And so much of the early evolution of cinema is just…gone. Forever. Take Theda Bara. She was a huge sex symbol. Enormous. The hottest thing in movies. She made more than 40 films from 1914 through 1926. And you’ll never get to see most of them, because there a fire that destroyed the one copy that existed. Poof. They passed from history into legend immediately. And that’s what we’re trying to stop from happening. If Scarecrow Video were to close, the collection would be broken up. Movies that we have now would essentially stop existing. This is the Library of Alexandria of movies, and we can stop it from burning.

Actually, forget about the movies for a minute. What about the supplementary information on DVDs? Sure, some director’s commentaries are useless. But some of them constitute irreplaceable lectures on how movies were made. There are behind-the-scenes featurettes that are fantastic. I particularly recommend the DVD of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, which has a great feature on Merian C. Cooper, the director of the 1933 movie. It seems to me that an awful lot of these things that make Criterion discs so great don’t seem to have made it to the Cloud. If we lose Scarecrow’s collection, we lose access to them.

Now, before we go, I probably need to do some full disclosure here. I’m not a strictly disinterested bystander, since my girlfriend works at Scarecrow Video. But it’s not just that I don’t want her to lose her job. She’s an expert on films, and she’s part of what makes Scarecrow better than Netflix. Netflix tries to recommend movies it thinks you’ll like, but it does a haphazard job. It’s not as good as browsing through a physical shelf. And it’s not as good as asking someone about this movie you vaguely remember hearing about, where a guy drags a boat over a hill. I feel a little guilty about recommending this, because apparently much of my girlfriend’s day is spent reenacting the Kids in the Hall sketch where she tells someone they’re thinking of Citizen Kane and they don’t believe her.

Okay, that’s my pitch. Don’t think of Scarecrow Video as the best video store in the world. Think of it as an irreplaceable archive of movies that needs your help to move into the future. Here’s the Kickstarter.

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Talking About Groot…Talking

Guardians of the Galaxy is a lot of fun. With that movie review out of the way, I’d like to talk about Groot. As you may be aware, in both the movie and the comics, he only ever says three words: “I am Groot.” But this has not always been the case! When he was introduced back in 1960, he was a generic Tree Monster From Space, and he had a very elevated vocabulary.

From Tales to Astonish #13, November 1960

From Tales to Astonish #13, November 1960

Of course, even then, he liked to tell people he was Groot, so maybe the seeds (tree reference!) were already there. IMG_0047 Groot Before we move on, I would like to point out that the hero’s wife in this story is a total jerk: Tales to Astonish Also,  when people panicked in comic books back then, they really panicked. Jack Kirby was good at expressive faces. Tales to Astonish After that, Groot was ignored for 45 years, except for a couple of cameos. He reappeared in 2008, in the giant and silly Annihilation Conquest storyline, in which a bunch of Marvel’s cosmic space dudes fought each other. Star Lord was assigned a team of convicts (convicts in a space jail, of course) to go do something or other. And in addition to the raccoon (Rocket’s his own complicated deal), there was this tree monster from Planet X.

From Star-Lord: Annihilation - Conquest

From Annihilation: Conquest Starlord #1

Groot’s pretty big here, although he’s smaller than he was in 1960. Here’s a cool shot of the team as it stood back then:

From Annihilation: Conquest Starlord #1

From Annihilation: Conquest Starlord #1

And he doesn’t talk a lot, but when he does, he’s got a big vocabulary. At one point, he’s reduced to a tiny stick, but that doesn’t affect his general demeanor.

From Annihilation: Conquest Starlord #2

From Annihilation: Conquest Starlord #2

From Annihilation: Conquest Starlord #3

From Annihilation: Conquest Starlord #3

Throughout the miniseries Star-Lord: Annihilation – Conquest, Groot and Rocket act as a team, and Groot is talking up a storm. When that miniseries ended, it fed into the overall six-issue Annihilation Conquest miniseries. And here’s where it gets weird. I mean, considering that we’re already dealing with a talking tree monster from Planet X. Which is movie canon, BTW. In issue three, Groot can only say “I am Groot,” so the assumption is that someone came up with this quirk between the two series. And Rocket even comments on how Groot only ever says the one thing.

From Annihilation: Conquest #3

From Annihilation: Conquest #3

But then in issue four, Groot can talk normally. He does say “I am Groot,” but as part of regular dialogue:

From Annihilation: Conquest #4

From Annihilation: Conquest #4

From Annihilation: Conquest #4

From Annihilation: Conquest #4

In issue five, he’s back to “I am Groot.”

From Annihilation: Conquest #5

From Annihilation: Conquest #5

And that’s where he’s been ever since. Which is only six years, but it seems like a permanent trait at this point.

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Austin Grossman’s YOU Is Kind Of About Me

YOU, by Austin Grossman

YOU, by Austin Grossman

If I’m not exactly Russell, the narrator of You, I’m close enough. Russell was born in 1969; I was born in 1970. Russell got a personal computer somewhere around the Commodore 64 era; I was a bit earlier than that because my mother was technologically ahead of her time. In fact, my mother comes very close to being namechecked in the book. At one point, someone steals a book on structured COBOL, which sets him on the path to being a brilliant programmer. In You, it’s the Stern and Stern book, but it could easily have been one of the many COBOL books by my mom.

And in 1997, Russell gets a job with a game company. Okay, so he’s working for a computer game place and I was working at Wizards of the Coast, but still. That’s plenty close enough for me to feel like this book was written specifically for me. A lot of people lump You in with Ready Player One, but that was a book written for people who like pretty much exactly the movies, games, books, and bands that I do. It’s not just a vague sense of “this book is about video games.” There’s a specificity at work, where I know exactly how the characters in You feel when they see graphics technology moving from Doom to Quake.

There’s kind of a MacGuffin at work in You, in the form of a long-running game franchise created by the weirdo geniuses at the Black Arts gaming company. And it’s pretty clearly a fictionalized version of the Ultima franchise, which (of course) takes me back to the days of Ultima ][ (that’s how we used to do Roman numerals; we thought it looked cool) and games that came packaged with cool cloth maps. I think it was Ultima 3 where I learned to use a sector editor to edit myself a more powerful character, although it was my best friend that wrote a BASIC program that provided a much faster way to do it. Or that might have been something in the Wizardry franchise, which, now that I think of it, had the whole “import a character from a previous iteration of the franchise” feature that appears in You.

That part of the story is more fun if, like me, you have been reading The Digital Antiquarian, in particular the recent articles on the Wizardry and Ultima franchises. Essentially, Wizardry got stuck in a weird dead-end; then Richard Garriott started getting some really ambitious ideas; then Ultima IV was fascinatingly unusual. That’s actually more interesting than what happens to the game in the book, because it’s obvious the whole time that this game company is doomed. If you’re the target audience (like me!) then the whole time, you’re aware that Quake and Half-Life are going to absolutely ruin these guys.

But that’s not really what the book’s about. It’s more of a meditation on what it means to be the protagonist, and how being the player of a game doesn’t really track with being the protagonist character. There’s always a disconnect there. Although in this case, there wasn’t that much of a disconnect for me. Because like I say, I practically was the protagonist of this game, in some ways.

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This Giant Heinlein Biography

Heinlein Biographies

I have just finished reading Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century Volume 2: 1948-1988 The Man Who Learned Better. That’s a long title, and it doesn’t even include the words “The Authorized Biography,” which appear on the front cover.

It’s an exhaustive biography. This volume is 671 pages, counting the index and 157 pages of notes. I urge you to consider all possible meanings of the word “exhaustive.” If you’re only a little interesting in Robert Heinlein, you won’t even consider reading this, and that’s for the best.

Me, though, I like his writing. I’m not signing onto all of his political opinions, but I enjoy all but three or four of his forty or so books. I remember the day he died (May 8, 1988) because it was my eighteenth birthday. I had ridden my bicycle two miles to a bookstore to purchase the latest Heinlein paperback, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, and when I got home, I learned that he had died that day. That gave the book an extra touch of weirdness.  Incidentally, it’s a weird experience to read a biography of someone when you know the exact date of their death, because you can really feel the countdown toward the end of the book.

Heinlein Paperbacks

The most interesting thing I learned from the first volume was that I had Heinlein’s chronology all wrong. If you put his books in order, they start with juveniles, then move to the more adult stuff. But he actually started with short stories for adults! It’s just that there was no market for books for that market, so the first novels were juveniles, then the shorter adult stuff got collected, then he eventually had the clout to write novels for adults.

I had a couple of takeaways from this volume. First, Heinlein’s writing stopped being edited right about the time I had always assumed it did: with The Number of the Beast. The books right after that are Friday, Job: A Comedy of Justice, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, and To Sail Beyond the Sunset, all of which are…kind of strange. I enjoy the weirdness of some of them (The Number of the Beast, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, and To Sail Beyond the Sunset) )and can’t stand the weirdness of others (Friday and Job), but I guess that’s what happens when someone who was heavily edited through his entire career breaks free at exactly the time he wants to start getting experimental. And is also undergoing serious medical problems so (and this is just my speculation) he can’t give everything the attention he used to.

I also thought it was interesting that to Heinlein, Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land (which was written immediately after it) were about exactly the same thing. That’s not how they strike pretty much anyone else, since two entirely different sets of people like each book. But he seemed annoyed by people who thought they had a somewhat different point of view. In fact, he seems to have been annoyed a lot. If you want to read letters where a famous science fiction author takes offense at people, this is a great biography.


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Let’s Talk About the Retro Hugos

The Hugo Nominations are out! I realize that awards are all inherently flawed, but I still like having something that forces me to pay attention to what’s current in the world of science fiction. If I didn’t have it, I’d just tend to sink backwards into the past and read stuff from decades ago.

Which brings me to the Retro Hugos! This year, in addition to rewarding the best (or what the voters liked the most) of 2013, there’s a round of awards for the best work of 1938. Let’s take a look at what actually got nominated in two categories: Novel and Fanzine.

Best Novel

I still think that T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone is going to win easily, because it’s the most famous. And Worldcon is in London, which seems like a good venue for this particular book. But it’s not the only British option; there’s also C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, which is the first book of his Space Trilogy. I’m reading it right now, because I don’t remember anything about it from reading it as a tiny child, except that I hated it. I was so excited, too, because I loved both Narnia and science fiction. Perhaps as an adult, I will be more accepting of its style.

There are also a pair of books from largely forgotten series. E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman books were huge in the 1930s, but they’re not much mentioned these days. Galactic Patrol was the third Lensman book, but it contains the stories that were written first. IT should be some high-quality space opera, I expect.  Carson of Venus, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs created Tarzan (of whom everyone has heard) and the John Carter/Mars series (of which many people have heard), but he also did this Venus series. That’s all I know about it, unless you count the fact that used book stores tend not to have any of the Venus books. I don’t know anything about Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Time, and I look forward to reading it.

Best Fanzine

This is my favorite category, because fanzines in 1938 were really fanzines. An essential part of fandom was having access to a teeny printing press. And everyone did it. If you were into science fiction in 1938, you had a zine, and you contributed to your friends’ zines, and you subscribed to zines from around the world. It all sounds terribly romantic until you learn how much work it was to make one of these things. Let’s just there wasn’t a spellchecker on manual typewriters.

Fantascience Digest was edited by Robert A. Madle, and in 1938, it featured Don Wollheim, Sam Moskowitz, Jack Speer, Henry Kuttner, John W. Campbell, E.E. “Doc” Smith, and Harry Warner, Jr., among others.

Fantasy News was edited by James Taurasi (who I forgot to list in the Fantascience Digest contributors). According to Zinewiki, it claimed to have the largest circulation. There’s no way of knowing if that’s true, but it might be. It was apparently a weekly!

Imagination! was the LASFS (Los Angeles Science Fiction Society) newsletter, edited by Forrest J Ackerman, Morojo, and T. Bruce Yerke. Ackerman was possibly the biggest science fiction fan in the world. I met him once in his bungalow full of amazing stuff. Morojo was Myrtle R. Douglas, a very important early fan, and I’d like to point out that she was a woman. A woman science fiction fan! “Morojo” came from her initials in Esperanto, because this is back when a universal language was going to solve war. Imagination! had Ray Bradbury’s first published writing (“Hollerbochen’s Dilemma,” nominated in the Best Short Story category) and covers by Hannes Bok and Ray Harryhausen.

Novae Terrae is from England, which didn’t stop it from having things by Forrest J Ackerman in it. It also had Arthur C. Clarke, but that’s to be expected. Novae Terrae eventually became the magazine New Worlds, which Michael Moorcock edited. It’s important to 1960s British science fiction, but we’re decades before that.

Tomorrow is a British fanzine that’s just gorgeous. Man, that’s pretty. Compare it to Novae Terrae, which has a much more 1938 look. I don’t know much about Tomorrow, but I appreciate the hard work of whoever scanned it in for me to read.

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Dear Showrunners, It’s Okay to Improvise

Everyone wants a showrunner with a plan. When LOST started, the most important thing was that JJ Abrams knew what the island was. When Battlestar Galactica ended, people were angry that it seemed like they were just making it up as they went along.

Well, the creators of How I Met Your Mother had a plan. They knew where they were going to end their series, and that’s where they ended it. Naturally, everyone is outraged, because by the time the nine-season show got to its predestined ending, things had changed. Barney and Robin’s relationship was supposed to be a roadblock to Ted, but people got invested in it on its own. And they spent the entire last season explicitly building up to a wedding and a meeting that were immediately thrown out the window.

Look, I have nothing against the idea of a plan. It’s useful to know where you’re going. But it’s also useful to know what you have. Sometimes a character isn’t working out, and you have to write them off the show. Sometimes a character is phenomenally successful, so you promote them from being a one-off to being an essential part of the show. Look at Ben Linus from LOST. Heck, look at Ben Wyatt from Parks and Recreation. Leslie Knope was supposed to have a string of guest-star love interests, but Amy Poehler’s chemistry with Adam Scott was terrific, so the writers just had the characters get married.

When you’re doing a television show, you have to know when a character isn’t working, so you can, let’s say, write Mark Brendanawicz off the show. And you have to know when something’s working really well. A lot of shows introduce a potential love interest in a later season, and it almost never works. Remember that cameraman that Pam was talking to on The Office? Complete failure.

And that’s where I think the writers of How I Met Your Mother went wrong. Against all odds, they called their shot nine years in advance, and when they introduced the Mother, everyone could have hated her. But everyone liked her! She fit the show, and she seemed like she’d fit Ted. Suddenly, everyone wanted Ted to end up with this character they’d never met before the final season. And the Barney/Robin relationship was working a lot better than would have seemed possible with the Barney from the early seasons. Their plan for the finale was still possible, but it no longer flowed smoothly from the show as it existed in the moment.

What I’m saying is that it’s okay to live in the moment. Sometimes the characters don’t want to go where you wanted them to go. Especially if you wrote up your plan ten years ago.

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