Archive for Miscellaneous Musings

Seduction of the Innocent, Indeed…

Here’s a Batman and Robin cover image you can be sure kept Dr. Fredric Wertham up late at night… and, gee, what could Lois possibly be whispering to Superman about?

(h/t: James Lileks)

Wishing My Friends and Readers a Wonderful 2012

Consider this my “bloggy” version of the end-of-the-year summing-it-all-up letter (known most commonly, I think, as “the Christmas letter”) that lots of families write, then make dozens of copies of to send off to their relatives and friends along with a Christmas card and/or a family snapshot.

Topping my “to do” list is wishing all of you a coming year of good health, profitable ventures, enjoyable times with family and friends, a deepening sense of community, and many hours of wonderful, entertaining, and enlightening reading. May 2012 be a year in which many longstanding bright aspirations are fulfilled, and one in which all of life’s surprises are positive ones.

2011 has been an odd year, a rather bifurcated year for me. Whereas many events in the wider world have prompted ill ease and a sense of waiting for the next shoe to drop, my immediate family’s life has been one of blessings over the past twelve months (your host spits between his fingers and mutters in Yiddish, “Kein ayin hora.”) The economy has remained on wobbly legs, with the official unemployment rate declining only because more and more people are opting to give up and leave the workforce entirely. Events overseas, from unrest in Arab lands to Iranian belligerence to the European sovereign debt crisis, combine to keep one on edge. In this time of uncertainty, I feel incredibly fortunate that I continue to be gainfully employed, that my family and I live comfortably and cozily in our small house in the woods, that we have enjoyed mostly good health this past year, that I’ve been able to start and finish a book I am very proud of, and that my sons have continued their growth and development into admirable young men.

Levi’s love of reading grows stronger and stronger, and he is taking to playing the piano, if not quite like a duck to water, then like a golden retriever to water (slowly and steadily, he’ll get to the far side). He and his younger brother Asher have both received glowing reports from their teachers at school. Both of them have made me proud by hanging in there with their Tae Kwan Do lessons, despite Master Nam’s exacting standards and Marine-like insistence on discipline, which places far greater demands on them than those they encountered at their former Tae Kwan Do academy (at the old school, the boys advanced to a new belt every other month, whereas under Master Nam, Levi has remained a white belt for more than six months, and Asher only recently received his first promotion). Judah has discovered an enthusiasm for monster movies, especially Japanese kaiju monster movies, which has prompted me to make him handmade monster toys and brought us even closer.

Dara and I have been able to do some traveling, reuniting with old friends in New York and in New Orleans; I had the honor of being a writer guest at CONtraflow, the first fan-run science fiction convention to be held in the New Orleans area since before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. We welcomed a new companion into our family this year, a kitten, rescued from the streets, named Priscilla. She has quickly made herself the queen of the household, demanding only the best (and most expensive) cat food, continuously pouncing on our four older cats, putting her small nose everywhere it does not belong, but happy to purr on Dara’s chest all night and offer affection to the rest of the members of the family (with the possible exception of Judah, who plays as roughly with her as she does with the other cats).

Growing independence on the boys’ part (mainly their being able to fall asleep without having me in their room with them) has returned to me a part of my life I had greatly missed – the opportunity to read for pleasure before going to bed. I’ve read some wonderful books this past year. The best of the bunch were Barney’s Version by Mordechai Richler and Mr. Sammler’s Planet by Saul Bellow. Not quite as pleasurable and enriching but still very rewarding were A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, Kampus by James Gunn, and The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. Borders’ going-out-of-business sale tempted me into adding a lot of recently published books to my library, so I have a very full shelf of to-be-read books waiting for me in 2012.

The Borders bankruptcy was just one symptom of the massive churn and “creative destruction” that seemed to accelerate in 2011 in the publishing and bookselling industries. All the uncertainty is enough to give any writer heartburn. Uncertainty has been the hallmark of my writing career since 2004. I presently have five unsold novel manuscripts sitting on my hard drive. But my attendance at the 2011 Nebula Awards Weekend helped me decide to take a more proactive stance toward my career, rather than simply churning out the books and hoping/praying that something good happens in the brain of some editor somewhere. Although the connection I made with Robin Sullivan of Ridan Publications didn’t end up working out the way I’d originally hoped, that experience did lead me to setting up this website after having been absent from the web for six years. I convinced my most recent publishers, Tachyon Publications, to make my third book, The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501, available in all the popular ebook formats. Also, Dara and I have been laying the groundwork for our own small e-press, so that when I judge that any of those five unpublished manuscripts have sat on enough editors’ desks for enough time, the books won’t be trapped in limbo. I will make them available myself, and Dara and I will combine our efforts to market them directly to readers.

Blogging has been a source of fun and pleasure so far. Since July 1 of this year, I’ve been fortunate enough to attract about 60,000 page views; not a rocket ship take-off, but not too shabby. Of the approximately 120 posts and articles I’ve placed on the website in its first six months, the following twelve are the ones I’m happiest with, the posts I think of as my creme de la creme to date. If you’ve missed any of them, you may want to take a look:

The Death of Science Fiction, 1960 and Today
“Lust for a Laptop, or the Madness of the Obsessive Collector” (series begins here)
Thoughts Prompted by the English Riots
It’s J. G. Ballard’s World, We Just Live in It
The Absence of 9-11 from Science Fiction
Science Fiction Movements and Manifestos
The Thrill of the New
A Tale of Two Bildungsromans
An Unpredictable (But Golden) Reward of Publishing
In Praise of Anne McCaffrey
Training the Next Generation of SF Geeks: an Intergenerational Study
Farewell to Joe Simon, American

To close out the year, here is my favorite quote I’ve stumbled across in 2011 (thanks to Mona Charen for bringing it to my attention), from the lips of Teddy Roosevelt:

“It is exceedingly interesting and attractive to be a successful businessman . . . or farmer, or a successful lawyer, or doctor, or a writer, or a president, or a ranchman . . . or to kill grizzly bears and lions. But for unflagging interest and enjoyment, a household of children, if things go reasonably well, certainly makes all other forms of success and achievement lose their importance by comparison.”

I couldn’t agree more, Teddy. Have a wonderful and successful 2012, everybody!

Farewell to Joe Simon, American

One of the last remaining creators of comic books’ Golden Age left us this past Wednesday. Joe Simon (born Hymie Simon) died at the age of 98 on December 14, 2011. Best known as the co-creator, with his partner Jack Kirby, of Captain America – Joe drew the very first sketch of the character – his career in comics contained many “firsts” and milestones that stretched throughout the Golden and Silver Ages of Comics.

Born in 1913 in Rochester, New York (his father, Harry Simon, was an immigrant tailor from England), Joe’s career in comics began in the late 1930s when he went to work as an artist for Funnies, Inc., one of the earliest packagers of comic books. Shortly thereafter, Martin Goodman, publisher of Timely Comics, asked Joe to create a new superhero similar to Timely’s first hit character, the Human Torch; Joe’s first super-heroic creation was the Fiery Mask. Joe then became the first official editor of Timely Comics. Not long afterward, he met Jack Kirby, and the two formed an artistic partnership that would last until 1955, when political attacks on the comic book industry led Joe to turn his efforts to commercial art.

Joe’s and Jack’s most significant shared creation was Captain America, whom they portrayed punching Adolf Hitler in the kisser on the cover of his very first issue, released in December, 1940, a year prior to America’s entry into World War Two. Captain America was far from the only patriotic hero the artistic duo created, however. In 1942, they launched the Boy Commandos for National (later DC) Comics, which became the company’s third best-selling title, after Superman and Batman. They paired that success with another hit, the Newsboy Legion, a home front kid gang action team led by an adult costumed superhero named the Guardian, who wielded a bulletproof shield much like Captain America’s. During the Korean War, Simon and Kirby co-created the Fighting American to pick up where Captain America had (temporarily) left off.

In the late forties, Joe and Jack created the subgenre of romance comics with their Young Romance, which inspired dozens of imitators, and were pioneers in the subgenre of horror comics with Black Magic. In the late fifties, the pair briefly reunited to create a line of superhero comics for Archie Comics, and Joe created the character the Fly, which some comics historians consider a precursor to Spider-Man. In 1960, Joe created a competitor to Mad Magazine, called Sick, which he drew and wrote material for and edited through the early 1970s. In 1966, Joe and Jack briefly reteamed again to create a line of superheroes for Harvey Comics. His final work in the comics realm came during the Silver Age, when he and Jack revamped for DC a Gardner Fox character they had first revamped in the 1940s, the Sandman. On his own, Joe created two unusual properties for DC – Brother Power, the Geek, about a living mannequin who joins the hippy movement, and Prez, about a teenaged president of the United States.

Joe’s name returned to the headlines of the comic book news media in 1999 when, following a legal ruling that the heirs of Jerry Siegel were entitled to a share of the United States copyright of the character Superman, Joe sued Marvel Comics, the successor to Timely Comics, for copyright to Captain America. The two parties settled out of court in 2003. In recent years, a wealth of material about Joe’s career has been made available. His memoir of his career in the comics, The Comic Book Makers, was reissued, joined by a companion volume, Joe Simon: My Life in Comics: the Illustrated Autobiography of Joe Simon. Several coffee table books of his art have been released, including the very handsome The Best of Simon and Kirby, compiled by my friend Steve Saffel.

In my several decades of following the comic book press, both fan and professional, I have never come across a single negative word said about Joe Simon. The comics press (and associated fan discussion) is often catty and backbiting; virtually no major figures in the industry have avoided being savaged from time to time by rumor, innuendo, or personal attacks. That Joe Simon is such a figure speaks volumes about him.

If there is one figure in American arts and letters who most strongly reminds me of Joe Simon, it is composer and lyricist Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Baline). Both lived very long lives; Berlin died in 1989 at the age of 101. Both came from Jewish immigrant families (Berlin’s from Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire) and spent the bulk of their working lives in New York City. Both achieved their most enduring successes during the World War Two era – Joe Simon with Captain America, the Newsboy Legion, and the Young Commandoes; Irving Berlin with his most beloved and ubiquitous songs, “God Bless America” (1938), “White Christmas” (1942), and “This is the Army” (1943). Both sought to create popular art for the average American. I think Joe would have enthusiastically nodded his head at this quote from Berlin: “My ambition is to reach the heart of the average American, not the highbrow nor the lowbrow but that vast intermediate crew which is the real soul of the country.”

Both men felt in their kiskas what it meant to be an American. Although it would not be fashionable for them to do so now, not in this age of multiculturalism and widespread disdain among the artistic classes for the notion of a shared national identity, both men chose not to emphasize the particularities of their own ethnic and religious backgrounds in creating their greatest works. Rather, each tried to reflect what they saw as the finest characteristics of that broad group they considered “average Americans.” Irving Berlin often gave credit to his mother for inspiring the lyrics of his most famous song. During his growing up years on New York City’s Lower East Side, his mother would frequently say “God bless America,” her way of expressing gratitude to a country which had taken in her and her family and provided them refuge from the pograms which had destroyed their home in Russia. Joe Simon would approve. In September, 2001, shortly after the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, he recreated the iconic cover of Captain America Comics No. 1, substituting Osama bin Laden for Hitler as Captain America’s punching bag. His quote? “I did it out of anger. Adolf got his. Osama will too.”

Joe Simon lived long enough to see bin Laden get his. He also lived long enough to enjoy, at last, a successful and reverent big-screen adaptation of his most famous character, Captain America: the First Avenger, which he enthusiastically endorsed. Joe, may your red, white, and blue shield never lose its luster. I’ll miss you.

(My appreciation of what the character of Captain America has meant to me over the years can be found here.)

Happy Thanksgiving! A Brief History of American Utopianism, from the Puritans to OWS

I’d like to wish all my readers and friends a very joyous Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving, of course, is a commemoration of our shared American ur-Kumbayah moment, when representatives of the earliest components of the Great American Melting Pot (to utilize that memorable phrase from School House Rock) sat down together to share a feast celebrating coexistence and cooperative economics. Or something of the sort; the message(s) of Thanksgiving is wonderfully elastic.

Utopianism, the notion that human societies are capable of being perfected, that proper planning or design or cultivation of particular personal disciplines could abolish conflict, hunger, misery, and want, has a long history in America, and in fact goes to the very roots of the nation’s founding. According to Wikipedia’s entry on “Shining City On a Hill,”

“Still aboard the ship Arbella, [Puritan leader] Winthrop admonished the future Massachusetts Bay colonists that their new community would be a ‘city upon a hill’, watched by the world. Winthrop’s sermon gave rise to the widespread belief in American folklore that the United States of America is God’s country because metaphorically it is a Shining City upon a Hill…”

Columnist Matthew Continetti has written a fascinating, and I think very useful, brief history of American Utopianism in the online edition of The Weekly Standard. He doesn’t take his chronology all the way back to the Puritans aboard the Arabella approaching what they would call New England, but he could have. Instead, he begins his story with the address of Welsh businessman and political theorist Robert Owen to a joint session of Congress on February 25, 1825. Owen proposed the creation of New Harmony, to be located on the Wabash River in southwest Indiana, a planned community whose virtues would “lead to that state of virtue, intelligence, enjoyment, and happiness, in practice, which has been foretold by the sages of past times, and would at some distant period become the lot of the human race!”

Continetti continues his story through nearly another two hundred year span, mentioning the utopian communities in Brook Farm and Oneida, and explaining the division of utopian thought into two competing streams: Marxism and anarchism, whose proponents could sometimes work as allies of convenience but who would almost invariably come into conflict. His story culminates with our contemporary Occupy Wall Street movement, which itself contains competing strands of Marxist socialism and anarchist socialism.

So, in honor of the Puritans, those members of the counterculture (of their day) who bestowed upon us this turkey- and football-filled celebration of the Shining City Upon the Hill, I recommend to you this pithy and insightful history of American Utopianism. Learn and enjoy!

Fantastical Andrew Fox for President?

Gee, I really need to mull this over…

Running for president is hard work. But promoting your book might be even harder work.

There’s the economy to consider. Publishing has been in the dumpster the past few years. Thousands of editors, publicists, sales people, cover designers, and publishing accountants are in danger of losing their jobs. A Fantastical Andrew Fox for President campaign could save or create, who knows, millions of jobs at Random House and Tachyon Publications.

The slogans simply roll off the tongue…

A copy of Fat White Vampire Blues in every pot!

Leave no Bride of the Fat White Vampire behind!

Give me The Good Humor Man, or give me death!

Sure! I’d just get the National Endowment for the Arts to buy a few hundred thousand copies. I’m the President, right? Or, better yet, if I wanted a worldwide distribution boost, I could order the State Department to buy ten or twenty thousand copies to send as Christmas presents to world leaders and hoity-toits and to stock libraries in key foreign countries… yeah, now we’re cooking with gas, now we’ve got our thinking caps on!

Too crass, you say? Beneath the dignity of an American president? Too Third World comic opera authoritarian? You’re telling me that’s something that, oh, say, Muammar Gaddafi would order his bureaucrats to do (or would have ordered his bureaucrats to do, past tense)?

Merry Christmas, world! Love, U.S. Taxpayers

My friends, do you mean to tell me, in the immortal words of Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here?

Ah, but it has. It already has.

Shocking But True: Blogging More Fun Than eBay Bidding!

Sorry, eBay.

Yes, I know I was one of your MFBs (Most Frequent Bidders) for years. Yes, I am fully aware that in less than eighteen months I spent the equivalent of the price of a moderately used three-year-old Toyota Camry on obsolete laptop computers and palmtops. And yes, I haven’t forgotten the thrill, the top-of-the-roller-coaster excitement, the twisted, obsessive-compulsive, serotonin-boosting rush of last-second bidding on an ultra-rare Hewlett Packard Omnibook 430 subnotebook computer.

But blogging is more fun.

I have conducted a scientifically rigorous survey (of my own feelings and experiences) and have determined the following: (1) Blogging is a much more cost-effective time-waster than bidding on eBay. (2) Blogging is less likely to get one reprimanded at work (or fired) than bidding on eBay. (3) Blogging is less corrosive to one’s sense of self-esteem and self-control than bidding on eBay (and in fact may boost one’s self-esteem, rather than deplete it). (4) Blogging is far less likely to lead to family strife than bidding on eBay. (5) Thanks to modern statistical conveniences such as WordPress plug-ins, blogging is capable of feeding the same obsessive-compulsive bottomless-pit-of-neediness as bidding on eBay can (and much more cheaply). (6) Blogging is more environmentally responsible than purchasing mass quantities of collectible crap on eBay. (7) Blogging is a more satisfying, more enjoyable, and (possibly) more socially beneficial activity than bidding on eBay (I say “possibly” because I’m well aware that during those months when I was blowing wads of money out my ass on vintage laptops and palmtops, I was supporting dozens of small business enterprises all over the country, so I was not engaging in anti-social behavior; merely self-defeating behavior).

Nowadays, blogging is essentially dirt cheap, especially if one utilizes a platform like Blogger or WordPress to maintain a site oneself. Web hosting can either be free for the absolute basics or as little as six dollars a month for something a bit more elaborate. Registering and maintaining a domain name or two may add fifteen or twenty bucks a year to that sum. Believe you me, Bob, that’s a much easier cost to justify to She Who Generally Must Be Obeyed (otherwise known as the household’s financial manager, otherwise known as my wife) than the fifty to a hundred dollars a month I’d probably blow on laptops, laptop parts and peripherals, graphic novels, science fiction paraphernalia, film noir and foreign movie DVDs, jazz CDs, and action figures for the boys if I still had an active eBay habit. (Not to say I don’t occasionally fall off the eBay wagon and briefly return to my old, rabidly acquisitive ways, but it now happens a tiny percentage of the time it once did.) Plus, I cringe when I think about the amount of garbage my old eBay habit produced; back when I was receiving three or four vintage laptops per week, disposing of the packing materials (boxes, bubble wrap, and, worst of all, Styrofoam peanuts) often filled two or three trash cans. And the Styrofoam peanuts inevitably ended up hiding themselves under my chairs, sofas, and bed, scurrying between accumulations of static electricity like rabid mice.

When I started my blog at the beginning of this past July, I wondered whether I’d be able to keep it up beyond the first few months, or whether I’d run out of fresh material and subjects to blog about. Some weeks have proven more fecund for blogging than others, but I’ve seemed to suffer from no shortage of subjects within my fairly commodious wheelhouse, self-defined to include most things that interest me and that I know a reasonable amount about, or at least am able to intelligently link to (while adding a dash of relevant commentary). Some posts have been toss-offs, and others have taken hours to research and further hours to write. Nearly all have been lots of fun for me (otherwise I wouldn’t post them), and, to judge from the comments I’ve received, a number of posts have found appreciative readerships. Which makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, of course.

Then there is the simply wonderful Jetpack Stats plug-in program, which feeds my addiction to site viewership statistics. Anytime I want, I can check the health of my viewership and see whether my average daily page views are trending up or trending down. I can watch with amazement whenever I am linked to by one of the net’s “biggies” as my page views increase by the dozens every second (excitement which easily bests even that of winning a Poqet PC Prime in the final seconds of an eBay bidding war). I’ve learned from my stats that blog reading is primarily a worktime diversion; the nadir of my page views occurs every weekend or whenever there is a work holiday, and views shoot back up again the following Monday or the day after a holiday, independent of whatever I may have posted over the weekend or will post on that Monday. The highest volume hours for viewership during weekdays are between 8 A.M. Eastern time and 5 P.M. Pacific time. After that, people go about living their lives, playing their Nintendo games, and viewing their porn.

It has also been fascinating to see which of my posts and articles have been “evergreen” in their appeal. My articles on J. G. Ballard and the English riots have been popular, as well as my jokey posts on Sinead O’Connor auditioning for a role in a Fat White Vampire Blues movie. Several of my Friday Fun Links articles continue to get views, especially the ones on fascinating abandoned places and mail-order novelties. I’ve been very gratified to see that my series of articles on my obsessive collecting of vintage laptop and palmtop computers has found a steady readership; not much new gets written on those old but intriguing pieces of historic kit, so I’m happy that my fellow obsessives seem to be discovering my little memoir and enjoying it.

I must give tremendous praise to the worldwide collective of altruistic, hobby-minded, and/or profit-hopeful individuals who have offered WordPress to the general public (for free!) and who continue to update and improve the platform (for free!), one of several which make it possible for non-programmers like myself to create and update their own websites (for free!). I took a five-year hiatus between running my two websites. My first, Andrew Fox, I paid to have a web designer set up for me and update for me; it lasted from 2003 to 2006 and pretty much washed away when my web master’s home got washed away by Hurricane Katrina. My second, the site you are currently reading, was a DIY (do it yourself) project. What a difference in the quality of experience and pride of ownership! Maintaining that first site was a chore and a burden. I had to describe in exact detail what I wanted my web master to change or add, then pay him for his time, then check to see if his work measured up to my expectations. Nowhere in that description of our transaction is there room for “fun;” therefore, I updated my website much less frequently than I should have, which made me feel guilty and inadequate.

Now, however, when I want to add an article or a post, change my color scheme, plug in a plug-in, update my list of appearances or publications, or futz with my menus, I just sign in to WordPress and do it. No writing up directions for somebody else to follow. No payment of a fee, no matter how moderate. I just spend whatever time it takes, whether it be a few minutes or an hour or two, and my desires are fulfilled. Instantly, on screen, where I can immediately look at my changes. What wonderment! What satisfaction! Happy-happy joy-joy!

Even more eye-popping than comparing the personal information sharing technology of 2011 to 2006 is to look at the changes that have occurred since 1980. I choose 1980 because that was the year in which I first ventured into the world of personal information sharing, back then through a fanzine called The Dragon Reader that I put out with three friends in high school. It took us a couple of years to pull together that single fifty-page issue. We had to type up the stories and articles on typewriters (and all of us were terrible typists—you can tell by the clearly visible White-Out traces on the Xeroxed copies of the zine). We had to use Zip-A-Tone friction-transferrable letters to alternate font styles and sizes, applying them one letter at a time, and we had to cut and paste (manually cut and paste) our prose and our artwork to fit together on the pages. Then we had to utilize the slow, clunky Xerox machine in one of our father’s offices to make copies that we then needed to manually collate and staple the spines. To top things off, we even had to spend serious money just to find people to whom to give the fanzine for free. Three of us attended the 1980 World Science Fiction Convention, Noreascon II in Boston, and took about 50 copies of The Dragon Reader along to sell. We didn’t sell a one; we gave nearly all of them away, to just about anyone who could be bothered to take one. So we spent (or rather our parents spent) the cost of four air fares from Miami to Boston (we took along Preston Plous’s stepdad as a chaperone) and the cost of three nights at the Copley Plaza Hotel so we could give away 50 copies of our fanzine.

And now? My website and blog are modern version of that old fanzine. It costs me less than $90 a year to pay for web hosting services and to maintain my domain names. I’ve been publishing for less than half a year, and on a slow day I may get 200 page views (on a day I get linked to by a big-time website, I might end up with 7,000 page views). The magic of internet search engines brings readers to my virtual door from all over the world. Persons who share my niche interests (obsolete and vintage laptop computers; Bronze Age comics; giant monster movies; classic works of written and filmed science fiction; cult authors such as Barry Malzberg and J. G. Ballard; old roadside attractions; or raising a trio of little boys) eventually find me through Google or Bing. People who have never heard of me or my books stumble across my site because they are interested in some topic I may cover for just one post, such as fiction that deals with the 9/11 terror attacks or The Adventures of Augie March or the Fisker Karma hybrid performance sedan. Sometimes they end up taking a look around the rest of the site and like what they see, then bookmark the website and become regular readers. My site statistics plug-in tells me that about 1-2% of my visitors take a look at my descriptions of my books or click on the links to vendors. Maybe that percentage will go up in time. Maybe it won’t (in either case, I hope and expect that my average daily audience will grow). But most researchers of purchasing behavior agree that a potential purchaser requires five or six exposures to an item of interest before he or she “pulls the trigger” on a purchase. And it is a whole lot easier for me to accomplish those repeated exposures through maintaining this website and continuing to add interesting new content than it is through personally schlepping to bookstores or science fiction conventions (although those two activities have important ancillary benefits beyond simply performing public relations).

What an incredible world we live in, where capabilities that my young boys take for granted didn’t exist when I was in high school (or college, for that matter). Back in 1980, when I was manually cutting and pasting up my first science fiction fanzine, virtually no one in the science fiction community had begun to imagine the comparative ease with which I would be able to share my musings thirty-one years later. What a world…

I, For One, Welcome Our Fat, Post-Menopausal, Cognitive-Superwomen Overlords

Pin-up artist Les Toil is obviously ahead of the curve...

I’m sure our friend Jules would agree…

Study finds that obese post-menopausal women outperform their non-obese counterparts on a range of cognitive tasks. I.e.: the fat gals just have more going on upstairs than the skinny gals who look down upon them.

The researchers speculate that their findings may be due to greater quantities of estrogen which are released from obese women’s fat cells following menopause, as compared to estrogen levels found in non-obese post-menopausal women.

My two cents’ worth? I just think that fat women, post-menopausal or not, have to deal with a lot more crap in their daily lives than their non-fat counterparts do. Dealing with social disapproval or disdain; seeking emotional equanimity and self-acceptance in a society that encourages the self-flagellation of those who don’t meet its physical ideals; finding decent looking clothes in stores; etc. etc. Having to deal with all of that, on top of life’s typical challenges, may mean having to exercise the old noggin a bit more than average.

Hey, many of my most devoted readers are older women of size. I’d consider that proof-positive of the researchers’ findings right there…

Fisker Karma: Solyndra on Wheels?

Fisker Karma: can you say, "crony capitalism?"

Our tax dollars at work… a half-billion dollar loan (actually $529 million) from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a hybrid toy for the wealthy and/or celebri-licious (like Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the first customers) that, in real world driving, won’t get much better mileage than your average crossover utility vehicle. Not only that, but the cars are manufactured in Finland — that’s right, Finland — and shipped here for sale, where their purchasers will then receive a $7,500 tax credit for buying one (the “cheap” base model starts at $96,895, with the full-zoot Eco Chic model going for a bargain $108,900).

I generally try to keep this blog pretty much clear of politics. But I’ll make an exception for this. Staring out the windows of my lunch room this afternoon, I saw something intriguing enough to get me to scarf down my lunch and get myself out into a gray, drizzly afternoon to check it out. Across the street from my building, a very large automotive transport truck with a fully enclosed trailer unloaded four cars of a type I had never seen before. They looked somewhat like big, four-door Chevy Corvettes, with voluptuous curves leading to a sleek rear end. People on the sidewalk next to the cars crowded around them and took photos with their camera phones.

I headed downstairs to see what the heck the cars were. I thought they might be one of the new four-door luxury electric models from either Tesla or Fisker, which I’d read about but hadn’t yet seen pictures of. What threw me, though, was spotting a round gas tank door on the rear driver’s side flank, plus dual exhausts. Not electric, I thought. By the time I got downstairs and across the street, the cars had been moved a block away, to the front of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, a luxury hotel in Southwest Washington, DC. I spotted the driver of the auto transport rig and asked him what he’d been hauling. He said four of the brand-new Fisker Karma performance hybrid sedans. Oh, gas-electric hybrids, I thought; that explains the gas tank and the exhausts. He said he’d had the devil of a time getting into this corner of Southwest Washington. Most of the city’s highways had been off-limits to his giant truck, and then he had found several local streets blocked by Occupy DC protests taking place at MacPherson Square, our local version of Occupy Wall Street. He said this was Fisker’s big roll-out. The head of the company, Mr. Fisker himself, was present at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel to do a press conference.

I walked over to the front of the hotel to get a look at the cars. Pretty damned nice, I’ll certainly admit, with a sleek roof lined with solar panels that, according to the company’s claims, give up to five additional miles per week of all-electric driving. While I was standing there admiring the four identical silver cars’ lines, a cabby exited his ratty old Crown Victoria and wandered over next to me, a look of rapt admiration on his face. “Nice, but it’s not for the likes of you and me,” I said. He nodded a little sadly, circled the cars, then returned to his cab.

I recalled reading that the Federal government had become a major financial partner in Fisker Automotive. That would explain the official rollout taking place in Washington. When I got back to my computer, I looked up the specifics. We the taxpayers are on the hook for more than half a billion dollars, about the same amount that got loaned to Solyndra, another “green manufacturer,” before they went bankrupt. At least Solyndra was manufacturing their products in this country, providing American manufacturing jobs (if short-lived jobs), and making a product that average Americans could conceivably afford. Fisker is manufacturing these gorgeous Leonardo DiCaprio toys in Finland. And the kicker, for those of you who would still claim that the risk of half a billion tax dollars is justified by environmental gains… contrary to the company’s initial hype, the Karma will only run for thirty-two miles on its electric motors before its turbocharged gasoline engine needs to kick in (as opposed to the initial estimate of fifty miles). Once that occurs, the Karma gets about the same mileage as a Ford Explorer. Not the new Explorer, even. The older, gas-hog, body-on-frame model. We’re talking twenty miles per gallon, folks. So much for your “green investment.”

Those Occupy Wall Street-types in their tents at MacPherson Square? If they really, truly are bugged by corporate welfare, they need to schlep their signs and their chants and their anger over to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Right now. Because the Fisker Karma is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to corporate welfare.

I have no problem with a group of entrepreneurs raising money from private investors to build a hundred thousand dollar toy for rich folks who want to flaunt their eco-consciousness. When and if that’s the case, may they have all the mazel in the world. But damn, it steams me up when my family and every family in America are forced to pay for it.

Al Gore is on the list of customers waiting to receive their Fisker Karmas, having put in his order before the DOE signed off on the company’s half-billion dollar loan. Oh, and by the way, it just so happens that several major investors in the company are also major donors to the Democratic Party. And here’s information on John Doerr, an advisor to President Obama who is also a major investor in Fisker Automotive. Can you say, “crony capitalism?”

Update: The analysts at Green Car Reports, “the ultimate guide to cleaner, greener driving,” worry that the Fisker Karma may discredit the entire Department of Energy loan program. Given that, in a comparison of EPA mileage ratings between the two “American made” (scare quotes present due to the Karma being manufactured in Finland, with its electric motors and batteries being sourced from China) plug-in hybrids now on the market, the Chevrolet Volt and the Fisker Karma, the Volt is “rated at 94 MPGe in electric mode, and 37 mpg on gasoline, with an electric range of 35 miles,” whereas the Karma is rated at “54 MPGe in electric mode; 20 mpg in range-extended mode,” with an electric range of just 32 miles, they may well be right to worry. Oh, and Fisker conveniently left out that little detail about “20 mpg in range-extended mode” in their press releases sent out in the last few days. Details are for the little people, don’t you know…

Update #2: Howdy to all you Instapundit readers! Hope you enjoy your visit. And if you happen to enjoy science fiction with a Libertarian outlook, you may want to check out my third novel, The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501. It’s just been reissued by Tachyon Publications as a Kindle ebook.

The Thrill of the New

a tree springing from a sandy beach; or is it a mutant piece of driftwood?

I recently visited the Leesylvania State Park in Virginia for the first time. At the park’s eastern edge, I was granted vistas of the Potomac River like none I’d ever seen before. I had a sense of what has been called “the thrill of the new” – that wave of pleasure that can overtake you when you find yourself in the presence of something familiar enough to be comprehensible, yet alien enough to force you make you truly notice it, to struggle to find referents within your experience that help make sense of this new pattern or sensation. Our minds enjoy being worked. Not overwhelmed, but challenged.

gnats caught in a spider's web

I took a pair of snapshots that help illustrate, for me, at least, this “thrill of the new,” this invitation to see familiar forms arranged in strange, unexpected ways. The upper one, the tree on the river’s beach, looked like a piece of driftwood the Potomac had deposited on the sand, which had then magically elongated into a full-grown tree, growing where no tree should be able to take root. The lower photo is of several dozen gnats caught on a spider’s web. Due to the angle at which I approached the web, with the gray-white sky and the gray-blue river behind it, the web disappeared from view, leaving only its captive contents visible – dead insects that seemed to form a cartoon sketch of a one-eyed, dancing man.

As a species, we seem to be powerfully drawn to new sensations. Researchers have identified that one of the key differences between our direct ancestors, Homo sapiens sapiens, and other species of hominids, such as Homo neaderthalis, was our ancestors’ refusal to allow natural barriers to cut off their exploration and expansion. Our ancestors found ways to ford rivers, to cross oceans, and to scale walls of mountains. What drove them forward? Scientists speculate it was an insatiable desire for the new. Recent genetic research on the remains of our ancestors, both direct and indirect, indicate that members of Homo sapiens sapiens pursued sexual relations with any creature that even vaguely resembled them – not only Neanderthals, but other contemporaneous hominids, as well, such as Homo erectus and Homo habilis. There is even speculation that the emotion that drove the earliest seafarers to take the mind-bending risk of sailing their tiny craft beyond the sight of land was a hunger for the new, particularly new types of sexual partners. When they reached Australia from the shores of Asia, they must have been sorely disappointed… unless some experimented with kangaroos or koala bears.

Yet people also have a countervailing need for the comforts of familiarity, especially when they find themselves in new and possibly threatening environments. Social researchers and psychologists have investigated a possible connection between Americans’ high level of mobility (their proclivity for moving from state to state) and their love of chain stores. The upshot? As much as Americans may gain economic advantages and aesthetic pleasures from experiencing the sights and attractions of a new home town, this exposure to newness and the stress it causes makes them prone to seek out the comfort of the familiar, such as dinners from Applebee’s and stone-washed chinos from the Gap.

As both a novelist and a reader of novels, I am constantly in search of the thrill of the new (not necessarily kangaroo sex, mind you). For what is the original meaning of the word novel? I very rarely read any fantasy set in Tolkien-style secondary worlds, because I find much of it to be repetitive and overly derivative of earlier books. It bores me. It too often fails to surprise or delight. For many readers, however, this is a feature, not a bug; they prefer books which feel profoundly familiar and homey. The familiarity and predictability are comforting and reassuring, perhaps a welcome balance to other aspects of those readers’ daily lives, which may not be comforting or reassuring at all. I’m not immune to a desire for literary “comfort food;” I take mine in the form of comic books, which, if they are to be truly satisfying, must remind me at least somewhat of the comics I read in the 1970s, when they were a refuge for me from strife at home and at school. When it comes to comics, I like the sense of hanging out with old friends from childhood. But I tend to like my fantasy to be more challenging. The thrill of Gene Wolfe’s The Books of the New Sun, for example, was that he took so many very familiar elements – the epic quest, the magical sword, the commoner who might someday be king – and spun them into a multi-volume adventure of personal discovery unlike any the genre had seen before.

As a writer, supplying the thrill of the new can be like walking a tightrope, however – lean too far one way and you risk the boredom of over-familiarity, but lean too far the other and you may plunge yourself and your would-be readers into the chasm of a lack of referents, a dark whirlpool of unfamiliarity. In my twenties, I went through a period when I was mad for anything Beat. I read book after book by Jack Kerouac, John Clellon Holmes, Allen Ginsburg, and their legion of friends, plus scads of biographies and memoirs. After reading the early novels of William S. Burroughs, I picked up a copy of his Naked Lunch with great anticipation. Yet I wasn’t able to force myself to read more than forty pages. It was too alien. It lacked referents, handholds for me to grab hold of as I traversed its pages. Reading it quickly became a wearisome mental exercise of forcing streams of words through my head and struggling to make sense of them… not an activity conducive to the desired altered state of consciousness we call “losing oneself in a good book.”

Aside from the aforementioned Gene Wolfe, which writers have been the most successful at walking the tightrope and eliciting the thrill of the new for me? The two writers who have been the most consistent at performing that trick, over a great number of books and an equal number of years, stretching from my early teen days to my present middle age, have been J. G. Ballard and Robert Silverberg.

Ballard spent much of his childhood overwhelmed by the new — the life-threatening new experiences of the Japanese conquest of Shanghai and its European quarter, the crumbling of the Eurocentric society he’d grown up in, his family’s transfer to a prison camp at Lunghua, and the eventual Japanese military defeat. Upon his return to England after the war, he became fascinated by the Surrealist painters. He also embarked upon a course of reading medicine at a university; he never completed a medical degree, but he was forced to confront the human body from a vertigo-inducing new perspective, and the coldly precise, oftentimes merciless language of medical journals insinuated itself into much of his fiction.

His sold his earliest stories to science fiction magazines, most prominently to New Worlds, soon to be edited by Michael Moorcock. He dedicated himself to the exploration of “inner space” as opposed to “outer space,” stories that focused on the psychological impacts of bizarre alterations in human experiences of time and their physical environments. His first novel, The Wind from Nowhere (1961), written in less than a half a month, was a fairly conventional disaster novel about hurricane-force winds that envelop much of Earth and drive civilization to the brink of extinction. Its most significant impact was that its sale allowed Ballard to become a full-time writer.

His next three novels, The Drowned World (1962), The Burning World (1964; also known as The Drought), and The Crystal World (1966), were also disaster novels. But they were an entirely different sort of book than the hastily written and mundanely plotted The Wind from Nowhere. With these books, Ballard expanded his explorations of Freudian and Jungian psychology and the visual inversions of his short stories, inspired by the Surrealists, into long form. Rather than present heroes who struggle against the dislocations and social and personal breakdowns brought on by overwhelming, worldwide environmental disaster, Ballard painted protagonists who not only surrendered to the entropy flooding in all around them, but who welcomed it, because it fulfilled their deepest psychological needs and desires.

No prior science fiction disaster novels had been written from such a perspective. Ballard’s determined rejection of the “heroic, problem-solving engineer” protagonists of much American and British science fiction since the time of Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories and John Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction scandalized many writers and critics in the science fiction field. The scandalized included noted writer and reviewer Algis Budrys, who had this to say about Ballard’s disaster novels in the December, 1966 issue of Galaxy:

“A story by J. G. Ballard, as you know, calls for people who don’t think. One begins with characters who regard the physical universe as a mysterious and arbitrary place, and who would not dream of trying to understand its actual laws. Furthermore, in order to be the protagonist of a J.G. Ballard novel, or anything more than a very minor character therein, you must have cut yourself off from the entire body of scientific education. In this way, when the world disaster — be it wind or water — comes upon you, you are under absolutely no obligation to do anything about it but sit and worship it. Even more further, some force has acted to remove from the face of the world all people who might impose good sense or rational behavior on you, so that the disaster proceeds unchecked and unopposed except by the almost inevitable thumb-rule engineer type who for his individual comfort builds a huge pyramid (without huge footings) to resist high winds, or trains a herd of alligators and renegade divers to help him out in dealing with deep water.”

The passage of time and the impacts of his influence in the works of subsequent writers have rubbed the transgressive edge from Ballard’s early-career disaster novels. Unless a reader is pretty much a virgin to the SF field, he or she will be unable to experience The Drowned World with the same fresh eyes and sense of dislocation that a typical reader of 1962 would have, just as enthusiasts of classical music can no longer hear Stravinsky’s score for The Rite of Spring with the same ears as those employed by the audiences of 1913. However, thanks to Ballard’s extraordinary mastery of visual imagery, these three books still powerfully conjure a trio of bewilderingly changed Earths and manage to deliver on that treasured “thrill of the new.”

Perhaps a bit ironically, Ballard’s final four novels, Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003), and Kingdom Come (2006), were so similar to one another, thematically and stylistically, that I found myself enjoying them in sequence much the same way a voracious reader of Agatha Christie’s mysteries would her connected works — as familiar, comfortable fictive “pillows” on which to rest my weary head. Ah, yes: that typical Ballardian hero, so indecisive, so alienated from himself, his family, his lovers, and his environs, so easily influenced by anyone with a powerful agenda; that restless professional and middle class, searching hungrily for fresh transgressions to shock them out of their stifling ennui; that gorgeous, off-kilter evocation of high-crust suburbia… I’ve read it all before, but I’m happy to read it again and again! Still, a retreat to a comfortable rut on Ballard’s part in his late career in no way diminishes the impact of his early disaster novels or such iconic mid-career works as Crash. (Bonus: here’s a graphic artist’s examination of the effectiveness of the cover art and designs of Ballard’s many books.)

One novel from my teen years that never fails to reward me no matter how many times I reread it is Robert Silverberg’s Nightwings (1969), a fix-up of three novellas, “Nightwings,” “Perris Way,” and “To Jorslem,” all published (I believe) in Galaxy between 1968 and 1969. The thrill of the new provided by Silverberg’s novel is the sense of Earth’s human civilization as almost incalculably ancient, humanity having millennia ago achieved its apogee as a star-spanning race that conquered and enslaved multitudes of other sentient species, confining individuals from them in terrestrial zoos, but having since fallen back so far that the residents of Earth, no longer star travelers, now fear being conquered themselves by the descendants of those they had made zoo exhibits. Other books that I’ve read have also reached for this effect, some of them with a good measure of success (I’d list Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse as chief among these), but none have managed it with the poetic weightiness, the sense of the passing of hundreds and hundreds of centuries with their accumulation of dust and detritus, sorrow and regret, that Silverberg so masterfully achieves with just the first few pages of Nightwings. Perhaps the effect would be better described as “the thrill of the ancient” than “the thrill of the new,” but it was certainly new, thrillingly so, to me back in 1976, when I purchased my Avon reprint of the novel.

Experiencing the thrill of the new, just like experiencing the fabled “sense of wonder,” becomes more difficult as a reader grows older and acquires more and more notches on his or her reading belt. Techniques that were so fresh and startling, viewpoints that were initially so strange and wonderful may lose their glow with repeated exposure. Not too long ago, I set out to read Robert Silverberg’s novels of the 1960s and early 1970s that I had somehow missed. I was very curious how I would respond to these books at this point in my reading life. Would I enjoy them, but in that “cozy, comfortable old flannel shirt” sort of way in which I had enjoyed Ballard’s final novels? Or could I possibly respond to any of them in the same way I had responded to Nightwings as a young teenager?

Maybe nothing could captivate me now the way Nightwings affected me back in 1976. But I must say, Downward to the Earth (1970) came darned close. It is the story of a human ex-colonizer, Edmund Gunderson, who travels to revisit the planet where he had once served as colonial overseer to work crews of sentient elephant-like beings and sentient giant sloth-like beings. Since his last stay there, the planet has been returned to the sovereignty of its native life forms, so he arrives as a tourist, not a master. I found Gunderson’s journey of personal discovery among the nildoror and the sulidoror, his learning of the link between the two species, a link neither he nor any of the other colonists, save one, had ever suspected, and the natives’ eventual acceptance of him and provision for his needs to be extremely moving. Not merely moving, but exhilarating because of its freshness. Its intimations of William Conrad’s Heart of Darkness added to the wonder and strangeness, in part because Silverberg’s book ends in an entirely different emotional zone than Conrad’s classic novella does. “The horror! The horror!” is still present, but it becomes inverted by the end of Silverberg’s novel, and quite wonderfully so.

To have provided me, a jaded, middle-aged SF fan who has read hundreds of novels and stories, who has written eight novels of his own, with the thrill of the new — and to have done so with a forty-year-old book… I must tip my cap to you, Mr. Silverberg. Well played, sir! Well played!

And how marvelous to discover that I am still capable of reading with the eyes, ears, and imagination of a twelve-year-old.

Thanks to All My Commentators!

I’d just like to send out a big THANK YOU to all the readers of my article, “The Absence of 9/11 in Science Fiction,” who took the time to write me and point out books or stories that I had missed in my (admittedly somewhat cursory) search.

Stories you mentioned included:
“Pipeline” by Brian Aldiss
“Dawn, and Sunset, and the Colors of the Earth” by Michael Flynn
“Family Trade” series by Charles Stross
“There’s a Hole in the City” by Richard Bowes
“The Things they Left Behind” by Stephen King
“Closing Time” by Jack Ketchum

Novels you mentioned included:
Paladin of Shadows series and The Last Centurion by John Ringo
A Desert Called Peace series by Tom Kratman
Orson Scott Card’s Ender books written post-9/11
Variable Star by Spider Robinson
Quantico by Greg Bear
Illium and Olympus by Dan Simmons

I didn’t include Robert Ferrigno’s books, such as Prayer for the Assassin, because they were marketed as thrillers, rather than science fiction (although Robert apparently emailed Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit to complain that he was left out of my survey, so he, at least, considers his books to be SF, despite how they were labeled by the publishers). The same goes for John Birmingham’s novels, which have been marketed as military techo-thrillers (although his Axis of Time series is certainly SF).

Three cheers for crowd sourcing! I’ll have to take a look at all of your suggestions, then post a revised version of my article to incorporate them. Stay tuned!

New Article on 9/11 and Science Fiction

Having just visited New York City, and with the tenth anniversary of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 rapidly approaching, I wanted to write a survey of how 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror have been reflected in works of science fiction and fantasy. What my admittedly limited research (primarily web searches and consultations with my own library) suggested surprised me — the events of 9/11 and the War on Terror have hardly been touched upon by speculative fiction writers at all, particularly in comparison with the volume of works written in response to earlier national traumas and upheavals of the 20th century.

I make my case for the relative paucity of 9/11-related speculative fiction here, and also suggest some possible reasons as to why this is so. I hope you find my article informative and thought-provoking (perhaps debate-provoking).

Having lost my cousin Amy to random holiday gunfire on New Year’s Eve in New Orleans in 1994, I know a little what it is like to lose family to senseless violence. Amy’s mother never fully recovered from the shock. My thoughts go out to all of our fellow citizens who lost loved ones ten years ago, who will be feeling their old wounds perhaps torn open anew by the anniverary and the memories it brings.

Novel-to-Film: Xeroxed or “Inspired By”?

I watched Peter Sellers’ Being There last night for the first time in many, many years. Thoroughly enjoyed it. I saw that the source novel’s author, Jerzy Kosinski, co-wrote the script. I must admit that I haven’t read the book. But watching the film gave me many of the pleasures of reading a finely textured novel, and I came away with the impression that the film probably hewed very closely to the book. Peter Sellers’ performance is extraordinary; given minimal dialogue, he invites the viewer to understand Chauncy Gardiner/Chance the gardener almost entirely through his facial expressions and body language, much the same way Chaplin did fifty and sixty years earlier. The book’s setting in New York was changed in the film to Washington, DC, which I can only think was an improvement, given the liveliness and visual humor of those scenes where Chance emerges for the first time ever from his benefactor’s Washington mansion in a rundown neighborhood not far from the White House and the Capitol Building. I’m very curious now to read the novel and see what other changes were made, if any, and how significant those changes were.

As a pre-teen I read Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain right after seeing the 1971 film version on TV. I was struck by how faithful the film version was to the novel, virtually scene for scene, dialogue line for dialogue line. The only major difference between book and film was the gender of Dr. Leavitt (Peter Leavitt in the book, Ruth Leavitt in the film). The screenwriter, Nelson Gidding, specialized in bringing literary adaptations to both the big and small screens. I was very interested to learn that he also wrote the screenplay for the 1963 film version of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting, which I recall also hewed extremely closely to its source material (unlike the rather baleful 1999 remake, which relied far too heavily on CGI effects and not nearly enough on suggestion). Apparently Gidding was a screenwriter who believed that fidelity between source novel and script served a film the best. Given my reactions to The Andromeda Strain and The Haunting, very different films yet both (to me) greatly satisfying cinematic experiences, I’d say he was right — concerning these two projects, at least.

One of my favorite horror/science fiction novels, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, has been filmed three times: as The Last Man on Earth (1964) with Vincent Price, The Omega Man (1971) with Charleton Heston, and most recently as I Am Legend (2007) with Will Smith. I haven’t seen the latest version, although I’ve viewed the first two multiple times (The Omega Man regularly scared me silly as a kid when it showed up on network television). Of the three, only the earliest, The Last Man on Earth, was faithful to Matheson’s vision of a virus from outer space killing the great majority of humanity and transforming virtually all the survivors into vampires. Cinematically, however, it is the weakest of the three, having by far the lowest budget and being somewhat hamstrung by Vincent Price’s limp portrayal of protagonist Robert Neville (I’ve read that Will Smith’s performance as Neville was the best thing about I Am Legend, and I’m a big fan of Charleton Heston’s stiff-chinned, bitterly sarcastic, Ford convertible-driving character in The Omega Man). Given the vampire craze of the past quarter century, it really surprises me that no one has attempted a faithful adaptation of Matheson’s scientific updating of the vampire legend since 1964. None of the three films brought to the screen the psychologically devastating twist ending of the novel, when Neville realizes that, in this world of a completely changed humanity, he is the monster, not the beings who have been trying to rid themselves of him.

Another Will Smith genre film, the extremely loose adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, seemed to have little in common with Asimov’s series of linked stories other than a title. Much of the thumbs-down reaction from the SF community was based on the filmmakers’ seeming disregard for their (much beloved and revered) source material. In fact, the screenplay, first entitled Hardwired, originally had no connection with Asimov’s works at all. But when 20th Century Fox acquired the rights from Disney, the new producers dictated the title change and that Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and some of his character names from the I, Robot stories be shoehorned into the script. Would the picture have been a better film had it been a more faithful adaptation? For a contrafactual look at what might have been, see Harlan Ellison’s screenplay for I, Robot, originally written for Warner Brothers with Asimov’s support.

At the other end of the fidelity scale, Zack Snyder’s 2009 adaptation of Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel Watchmen may have suffered from being too faithful to its source material, at least during its first three quarters. (Some fans of the graphic novel castigated the filmmakers for changing key elements of the novel’s ending; I think the filmmakers made the right choice, as the novel’s climax, featuring a gigantic, dead B.E.M. in midtown Manhattan, could have come across as inappropriately comical on the big screen.) Having read the graphic novel four or five times, I could see, watching the film, how Snyder had utilized artist Dave Gibbons’ page-by-page panels as a storyboard for nearly the entire movie. For the opening scenes involving the murder of the Comedian, this worked very well. For other, more character-focused scenes (the entire romance between the second Silk Spectre and the second Nite Owl), it hardly worked at all. Scenes evocatively and precisely drawn on the page by Gibbons simply did not transfer well to their on-screen miming by Patrick Wilson and Malin Akerman. Had the screenwriters been free to break loose from Moore’s graphic novel dialogue and Gibbons’ scene setting, maybe they could have conjured a more convincing emotional spark between Silk Spectre and Nite Owl. Or maybe not. Maybe Wilson and Akerman just lacked chemistry, and no scriptwriter, no matter how talented, could have given them dialogue that would have allowed them to click. Another contrafactual…

An example of a genre novel adaptation which I think was made a good deal better than it otherwise would have been by being unfaithful to its source material? I would suggest the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes, which was loosely based, of course, on Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel Monkey Planet. I suspect any attempt to accurately reflect Boulle’s novel on film utilizing 1968 filmmaking tech would have been dead on the screen. Rod Serling made all the right choices in his script, which resulted in a film that has had a powerful impact on the public consciousness and left us with several unforgetable images (the end shot of the Statue of Liberty, in particular).

Jump into this, won’t you? Which films based on novels (or graphic novels) do you feel would have been improved by hewing more closely to their source material? Or which were damaged by the filmmakers’ attempts to be overly faithful to the written word? Comments are open!

Thoughts Prompted by the English Riots

My concerned thoughts and supportive hopes go out to the residents, public safety personnel, and shopkeepers in the neighborhoods and cities in England which have been devastated by rioting and looting this week. I’ve experienced three close calls with riots and violent looting myself, twice in Miami (the 1980 Liberty City riot and the 1982 Overtown riot) and once in New Orleans (the looting and arson in Algiers and Terrytown following the landfall of Hurricane Katrina in 2005). So I feel a more than tenuous emotional bond with those people who are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives, businesses, and homes this week.

The reports I’m reading indicate that the majority of looters, arsonists, and rioters in England are young people. I’m the father of three young people (and stepfather to a fourth). On a daily basis I have opportunities to closely observe the behavior of my children, to try to rechannel some of that behavior in more positive directions, and to attempt to stamp out behaviors which can have no positive outcomes at all. Doing this over the past seven years has taught me a lot, particularly since my kids’ tendencies and behaviors match up very well with milestones I remember from my own moral development as a youngster.

I’ve come to hold certain beliefs about human nature, based on my experiences. Human beings are pleasure-seeking creatures. By “pleasure” I do not particularly mean “comfort” or “ease.” Much of the pleasure we seek is stimulation. Human beings are creatures who loathe boredom and who actively seek out novelty and new experiences, or look to repeat experiences which produce excitement, laughter, or a sense of triumph or mastery. This human tendency is neither good nor evil. It is essentially amoral. Depending on what the tendency leads to and how other emotions and faculties channel this restlessness, curiosity, and hunger for stimulation, it can result in either enriching discoveries (such as scientific and medical advances) or cruel catastrophes (wars of aggression or genocide).

I see it at work in my sons’ bathtub. My two youngest sons, Asher and Judah, take baths together. They love it. It’s playtime for them. Sometimes, for my four year-old, playtime heads in dangerous or inappropriate directions. Judah is fascinated by the notion of inserting bath toys or fingers into his older brother’s orifices. Both boys think this is hilarious. Mild warnings have not worked to dissuade this behavior. Shouting does not work. Punishments, including revocation of TV privileges or spankings, do work, but only for a few days. Then the behavior returns and must be stamped out (temporarily) with another punishment.

My youngest child is not evil or malicious. He is sweet and affectionate. He has no desire to hurt his older brother, although if he carries through on some of his designs, he could force a visit to an emergency room. The impetus leading to the behavior must be very strong, though, because Judah is willing to risk losing precious TV watching time or being slapped on the behind. He wants to laugh. He wants his brother to laugh. He wants, maybe most of all, to find out what will happen if he pushes a rubber alphabet letter up his brother’s anus or forces it into his ear canal. My only recourse as a parent is to remain vigilant, be consistent with my discipline, and hold the line until Judah reaches an age where he internalizes my moral instruction (“Putting a toy in your brother’s hiney-hole is BAD”) and can use cause-and-effect reasoning to put limits on his carrying out of his desires (“If I do what I want, I might hurt my brother, and I will be punished, which I don’t want”).

Children’s brains and emotional development typically reach a point, generally around the age of five or six, when external reinforcement (parental warnings or punishments) becomes slightly less necessary to control dangerous or maladaptive behaviors, because the child has begun carrying around a little parental voice of caution and condemnation inside his head. I remember very clearly when I made this transition. I was in first grade, about my son Asher’s age. My teacher had given me a little plastic toy sailboat, about two inches long, as a prize for doing well with my math tables. All day long at school, one of my friends, Dickie from up the street, asked to see the sailboat and to hold it. He made me promise to show it to him again after school, when we returned home. I became irritated with him and his repeated demands. I made a plan to show him just how irritated I was. I walked up the block from my house to his, my fists held behind my back. In one hand, I had the sailboat. In the other hand, I had a fistful of sand. Dickie was playing in his front yard. When he saw me, he immediately asked if I had brought the sailboat. I said yes, showed him the sailboat in one hand, and then threw the handful of dirt into his face. His grandmother saw this through the window and ran outside to comfort Dickie and yell at me. I ran home. I felt terrible. I knew I had done something very wrong (although I had not perceived my action to be wrong during its planning phase). I felt that God had seen what I had done. I was very afraid. I ran into my bathroom, locked the door, knelt down on the floor, and prayed for God’s forgiveness (the forgiveness of the Omnipresent Parent) and that Dickie would be all right.

Later, after the establishment of the Internal Parent, comes empathy, if all goes right with a child’s development. Empathy is perhaps an even stronger deterrent against carrying through on desires which may prove harmful to others. I also remember the age and time when I discovered I had developed empathy, and that empathy could make me suffer deep shame at my behavior. I was eight years old and attending summer day camp. One of the other campers had a mild facial deformity, a cleft palate which had been partially corrected by surgery. He was also shy and socially awkward. One afternoon, my camp group piled onto a bus to go on a field trip. A number of the other children began taunting the boy with the cleft palate. I briefly joined in what seemed to be the fun of the moment. But then I stopped myself. I remembered that other children, in a different setting, had made fun of me for being socially awkward and for excelling in my classwork (for being a nerd, essentially). I realized, in a moment of searing shame, that I had briefly let myself become just like my own tormentors, whom I hated. I swore to myself that I would never do anything like that again. And I never did.

Cruelty, once separated from its moral dimension, is fun. Any honest person will admit to this. Cruelty is a form of experimentation. It allows us to pursue the answer to our question, “If I do this, what will happen then?” How cutting an insult do I need to address to my sister before she cries? How hard do I need to pull a cat’s tail to make it yowl? Will it do anything in addition to yowling? Experimentation is a way of satisfying curiosity, and curiosity is one indicator of our powerful human drive for stimulation. Empathy can serve as a limit setter on experimentation. What are medical and scientific ethics if not applications of empathy, used as guideposts outside of which our explorations and experimentations must not venture? Science, on its own, without the application of empathy, is amoral. The medical experiments of the Nazi doctors in concentration camps took place in an environment where empathy had been abandoned, where medical and scientific guidelines had been willfully cast aside. I’m certain those doctors enjoyed their work. I’m certain they found it fascinating, even fun. They were operating at the limits of human knowledge. They were discovering answers to questions that most other doctors and scientists had not allowed themselves to even ask, much less pursue. They were exercising, without limit, their Will to Power — which, at its most basic, is an unhindered seeking of stimulation, whether that stimulation be sexual, exploratory and intellectual, or the satisfaction of physical appetites.

I find it very instructive that two of my boys’ favorite TV shows are Destroy, Build, Destroy, and Dude, What Would Happen? Both shows on Cartoon Network feature groups of nominal adults, men in their twenties, acting out the destructive fantasies of pre-adolescent boys. What would happen if you built a catapult and catapulted a washing machine onto the roof of a barn? What would happen if you dropped six dozen raw eggs off a fifteen-foot-high platform onto a man’s head? What would happen if you filled a school bus with explosives and set them off? These shows illustrate the results and scratch that itch to know. More often that not (unless the experiment turns out to be a big dud, which sometimes happens), my boys cheer and laugh and slap each other on their backs, almost as excited as if they’d carried out that bit of spectacular vandalism themselves.

Without our essential drive for stimulation and novelty, mankind would likely have remained an African population of a few hundred thousand hunters and gatherers. But untempered by empathy, our strongest and most ambitious individuals would have wiped out everyone else, and our most powerful intellects would have acted as the equivalents of the Nazi doctors. Which has oftentimes, in the absence or weakness of countervailing civilization, been the case.

I believe that empathy is a natural facility of human beings, but that some people are granted a stronger tendency or “talent” for it than others. I also believe that, within certain limits, empathy can be taught, and that with practice one can get better at utilizing it. My middle son, Asher, is a very sweet six year-old who loves animals, but he sometimes, to use a colloquialism popular in our household, “gets the devil in him.” His need for stimulation, for excitement and enjoyment, outweighs his common sense and his still-developing sense of empathy. He pulls a cat’s tail, stomps his feet near one of the cats, or throws a toy at one of them, to see what they will do. When I catch him doing this, I threaten to punish him, and I ask him this question: “How would you feel if you had a tail and the cat pulled it?” He answers, “I don’t have a tail.” I say, “Well, imagine you do. How would that feel? Would you like it if the cat pulled your tail?” “No…” he replies. And I watch the gears turn behind his eyes. And each time we repeat this little script, repeating it becomes a little less necessary.

The extent of empathy in individuals ranges a great deal. We can learn much about empathy and its limits from neuroscience, from observation of those individuals who, due to neurological abnormalities, are outliers in their capacity to experience and utilize empathy. Sufferers of Asberger’s Syndrome are unable to instinctively deduce the thinking and motivations of other people. This greatly limits their natural development of a sense of empathy. Yet they can be coached to develop a kind of intellectual empathy which they can use to substitute for their missing innate, emotional empathy. Sociopaths, on the other hand, both lack a natural sense of empathy and cannot be coached to develop one. The best that their family and society can do for them is to help them strengthen their cause-and-effect reasoning, to make them aware of external deterrents and limiters on their behavior, so that, even though they lack internal monitors and counterbalances, they recognize that they will suffer a consequence whose undesirability outweighs the desirability of whatever antisocial or dangerous stimulus-seeking they might be contemplating.

All societies have populations which span the full range of empathic ability, from saints to sociopaths. The majority of individuals have been trained by their parents, families, peers, churches, and schools to properly utilize their natural sense of empathy to curb their appetite for stimulation. However, some individuals have lesser talents for empathy and have either not responded to training or have not received it. Other individuals have no talent for empathy at all, and they are only kept in check by external reinforcers, such as legal penalties or the threat of retaliatory violence.

I believe what happened in London and other parts of England earlier this week, and what happened in Miami in 1980 and 1982 and in New Orleans in 2005, was the result of the bulwark of external societal reinforcement being temporarily removed or greatly weakened by a natural disaster or an initial outbreak of social unrest, which either siphoned off resources or unveiled as hollow the retaliatory power of the authorities. I also believe that the unhindered stimulation seeking — what does it feel like to take whatever I want? what does it feel like to set a building ablaze? what does it feel like to beat a stranger senseless? — was intensified in each of those places by large numbers of individuals whose parents and communities had not properly applied themselves to the basic tasks of setting limits, teaching empathy and its corollary, morality, and, at a minimum, ensuring that appropriate consequences are in place for stepping over the lines.

This, essentially, is the story told by a few of the young rioters and looters in England who were interviewed by Radio 4’s Today program on Tuesday morning. In their own words, their decision to go into Manchester and loot was rational and calculated, based upon the unlikelihood of their being severely punished, either by the law or by their parents, and upon the ease and convenience of pursuing their appetites in the midst of the general anarchy. I read or listened to very similar interviews with rioters and looters in Miami and New Orleans. This is not a phenomenon limited to England.

Attack of the Spam Zombies

Being on the receiving end of a cyber-attack, particularly a non-lethal form, is very thought-provoking. My first thought was, “Who are these people?” My second thought was, “Are these even ‘people’ at all? Is there any human sentience behind this?” My third thought was, “If these are automated net robots attempting to overwhelm my site with anodyne comments and quips, what did the robots’ creators intend to accomplish? Anything? Or merely anonymous vandalism? And why is the spelling so uniformly atrocious?”

For any of you who intend to post legitimate comments from here on out, please accept my apology for forcing you to register before placing your comment. However, I’ve been watching my spam comments grow exponentially (ironically during a period when my genuine readership had been declining). From one questionable comment every other day or so (Is this from a real person? Should I approve this or spam it?), the spam comments climbed to ten a day, then to forty a day, and then to arriving in my approval que every other minute or two. The spam comments were never obscene or offensive… just… dumb. Either offering generic praise with bad spelling, or spewing some complete non sequitur. The names attached to the spam comments began sounding like a roll call for a low-rent strip show, or the attendee register for a convention of hookers: Candi, Bambi, Disney, Florette, Wanda, Lasynda…

Who set up these robots? What did they mean to do? A few of the names came attached to url’s whose intent was obvious — to sell penis enlargement pills or discount sneakers. But most of them had no visible commercial intent at all. Was this just a form of online graffiti? A type of cyber-vandalism, or anarchy? Attempted destruction and disruption without any purpose at all?

It put me in mind of the planet killer from “The Doomsday Machine” episode of Star Trek… a machine of mass destruction, still doing its work in the remote wastes of space, whose original purpose and creators have been long forgotten and have perhaps disappeared, leaving only their legacy behind. Or the germs from outer space that reanimate corpses on earth and set them to eating the flesh of the living in Night of the Living Dead. In their original environment, were those germs benevolent? Did they act in a symbiotic fashion with higher life forms, perhaps aiding in the act of digestion? Or did they have no purpose at all where they came from?

God, I Love This Country

Charlie Bob's Market and Deli in Manassas, Virginia

Dispatches from Exurban America (another in an occasional series)

The Great American Melting Pot is alive and well. I have seen it with my own eyes.

My family and I moved to the outskirts of Manassas, Virginia two years ago. The closest store to us was a place called Propp’s Grocery, a non-corporate, no-name convenience store, deli, and gas station which looked like it had been sitting there on Dumfries Road since the Roosevelt Administration. Maybe Teddy Roosevelt’s Administration. I took my boys in there once for soda pops and chips, just so we could get a look at the inside of the place. They sold live bait in there. The worms were a big hit with the boys, who like digging them out of our front yard. I admired the owner for his ability to stay in business with a 7-11 just two blocks away.

About eight months ago, Propp’s Grocery changed hands. The old sign came down. A new sign went up. Now the place was called Charlie Bob’s Market and Deli. I liked the old name better. The name “Charlie Bob’s” sounded like it was trying too hard to appeal to local sensibilities. Whereas the name “Propp’s” had been straightforward, honest, and simple… homespun and local without reaching for it.

I watch Charlie Bob’s prices on gas each time I drive past, which is often. When his price is good, I’ll stop there and fill up my Rondo. It’s one of the few places I stop for gas that qualifies as an aesthetic experience. There’s a big, abandoned Victorian house next door that has an old barn and silo behind it. The house is hanging in there amazingly well, a testament to its solid construction. There’s no For Sale sign. I’ve never seen a soul on the property. It might be haunted (that’s what I tell the boys).

I stopped there for gas this morning. The price was $3.69/gallon, not the best in the area, but not the worst, either, and I was running on fumes. The little digital screen on the pump told me I would have to see the cashier to obtain my receipt. I hate when that happens. The whole purpose of being able to swipe your credit card at the pump is so you don’t have to go inside. But this morning I wasn’t in a rush. I resigned myself to spending an extra minute and a half retrieving my receipt.

Walking to the front entrance, I noticed that half the building’s interior had been closed off and was in a state of reconstruction. There was nobody at the cash register when I went inside. I called out, “Hello? Hello?”  A South Asian man walked through a temporary door from the portion of the building being renovated. He asked me which pump I had pumped gas at (there are only two). He apologized that the pump hadn’t given me a receipt and said he’d been calling the company about that problem and would call them again. He introduced himself as Mr. Singh.

Where was Charlie Bob, I wondered? Was Mr. Singh an employee of Charlie Bob’s?

It quickly became clear that Mr. Singh was Charlie Bob. Or rather, there was no Charlie Bob. Charlie Bob was a false front. A mask.

I asked Mr. Singh what would become of the other half of the building. He told me, proudly, that he was completely redoing his deli area. He would sell fried chicken “just like Popeye’s.” I asked if he’d be serving breakfast, since the boys and I like going out for breakfast on weekends. He said yes, yes, eggs and everything, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

He told me he was from India. He also told me that, eight years ago, he had owned this place, and then he had sold it to the people who ran it as Propp’s Grocery. When they decided to sell out, he couldn’t bear the thought of some strangers running it, so he bought it back. And renamed it Charlie Bob’s. I neglected to ask him what it had been called before it was called Propp’s. Maybe it had always been called Propp’s. But now it was Charlie Bob’s. Not Singh’s. Charlie Bob’s.

I found that oddly endearing. In this multicultural age, Mr. Singh had opted to go native. Maybe he had done so a little clumsily. . . after all, in the more rural parts of Virginia, “Charlie Bob” was about as stereotypical a local name as “Boudreaux” was in South Louisiana, where I’d come from. But it made me smile, as did his insistence that his fried chicken would be “just like Popeye’s.” Not better than Popeye’s. And not Tandoori chicken, either. But just like something he obviously considered to be a quintessentially American favorite.

My grandmother had come over from the Ukraine.  Her village had been burned down by Cossacks, and she and her family had fled across a frozen lake.  I remember seeing an old photo of her as a teenager, holding a little American flag.

I told Mr. Singh I’d bring the boys around for some eggs some Saturday morning.

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