Sunday, August 23, 2009

Meta Mandom Weekend

[Video: Charles Bronson shows proper fishing technique.}

Paternal duties this last weekend before school starts included a significant amount of silver screen time, between bouts of unsuccessful carp fishing (our Big Red + Corn Flakes bait recipe needs work—tips welcome).

The mandatory Saturday matinee screening (here in 102 in the shade Austin) of Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds exceeded my expectations. I walked out of Kill Bill vol. 1, unexpectedly finding my appetite for QT's self-referential pop-cultural smorgasbord ready for purging — something about the lack of emotional affect evident in the prolonged indulgences of grindhouse sadism. Tarantino's foray into Bridge Too Far territory allows him to find something more potent in his meta-cinema. Unable to sustain the scenes with Royales with Cheese, Tarantino constructs a pretty amazing ensemble narrative that embraces its own grounding in no other reality than subjectified cinematic experience of reality: an alternate history of WWII informed by Lee Marvin at the expense of Liddell-Hart. Using language as a key to unlocking the objectification of reality in a mediated age, starting with misspelled title a riff off a seminal spaghetti WWII flick, appropriated in a fleeting glimpse of a personalized handle carved into the stock of Aldo Raine's rifle.

Sunday night was a screening of Costa-Gavras' Z., a 1969 political thriller that riffs of a 1963 coup in Greece, reset in a placeless ur-Mediterranean nation-state somewhere between Paris and the Maghreb. It shares with Inglourious Basterds an elusive treatment of the idea of the protagonist, and an old-school pacing that maintains intense dramatic tension without hyper-kinetic fantasy.

The aperitif for these entrees was a Friday night laptop DVD viewing of the first episode of Venture Bros., the insane Adult Swim remix of 60s adventure cartoons, a strong recommendation of friends who know that I am an ideal audience for any serious effort to spelunk the subtext of Johnny Quest.

My conclusion: that all contemporary efforts at alternate history are not in fact based on alterations of actual history, but on remixes of pop cultural portrayals of that history, revealing the contemporary experience of history through the prism of Hollywood narrative. From Z. to The Parallax View to Oliver Stone's JFK, from The Dirty Dozen to Kelly's Heroes to Schindler's List, these narratives are the dominant semiotic experience of our recent history. Explaining, perhaps, why our leaders so often during times of geopolitical crisis speak from the action-adventure movie plot formula glossary. To the mind of contemporary culture, Inglourious Basterds is a work of realism, authentically depicting the contemporary American's idea of the experience of WWII.

This co-optation of consensus reality by movie trailer narrative arcs was confirmed at our pre-Z. sushi dinner, in which our friendly neighborhood Japanese yakitori chef flipped the una-ju on the grill and mentioned how Steven Seagal has been hanging out in the restaurant with Jessica Alba, Robert Rodriguez, and Danny Trejo, all working on the new Rodriguez film Machete, based on the trailer of an imaginary movie included in Grindhouse. (It is now confirmed that Seagal does in fact speak fluent Japanese.) Walking back from Z. through the downtown Austin that also serves as the set for Machete, one could be forgiven for projecting onto it a variety of alternate realities.

Perhaps the best confirmation, though, were the shorts screened before Basterds at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz: trailers for The Dirty Dozen bookended with Japanese cologne commercials featuring Charles Bronson inhabiting a Tokyo variation of men's adventure pulp that does not want to die.

There's no stench of apocalyptic death that a healthy splash of Mandom can't fend off. Live the century the way you want to live it:

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Jack Trevor Story Memorial Prize

There was some big news at Armadillocon that doesn't seem to have gotten much attention. Which is a shame, because Armadillocon is such a literary-oriented convention and an award of this prestige isn't given out every day. But Friday night, during the meet-the-pros shindig, Michael Moorcock and his lovely wife Linda unexpectedly showed up with the express purpose of presenting the Jack Trevor Story Memorial Prize to none other than Texas' own Howard Waldrop.


The Jack Trevor Story Memorial Prize is awarded sporadically, and is presented by Moorcock, literary executor of Trevor's estate. Moorcock explained the audurous selection process in 2006:
The rules vary. They are fairly arbitrary. Sometimes it's a fair selection made from a number of writers. Sometimes it's to a writer who could do with the dosh (but is funny). Sometimes it depends on the size of the bribe offered to the committee. Which, sometimes, is just me.

When the prize was first awarded it was scrupulously fair. But, as in the course of all such prizes, it is now totally corrupt.

It is generally awarded for a work of fiction or body of work which, in the
opinion of the committee, best celebrates the spirit of Jack Trevor Story. The conditions of the prize are that the money shall be spent in a week to a fortnight and the author have nothing to show for it at the end of that time. This is to recall Mr Story's famous reply to the bankruptcy judge who enquired where a substantial sum of money paid to him for film rights had gone -- "You know how it is, judge. Two hundred or two thousand, it always lasts a week to a fortnight."


Waldrop was presented with a commemorative Jack Trevor Story Memorial Prize "Cup" which has the value-added feature of being able to drink coffee or other liquid beverages from, an uncertain amount of money generally assumed to be roughly equivalent to £50 (which Waldrop insists he will have no problem spending with nothing to show for it) and all the prestige he can eat. Overcome with emotion, Waldrop was overheard telling friends that the award had inspired him to go finish his long-delayed novel, I, John Mandeville.


Congratulations, Howard! Nobody deserves it more than you!

Additional Armadillocon photos may be viewed at Lisa on Location.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Armadillocon 31

Armadillocon 31 starts today. I'll be there in just a few short hours, as will fellow No Fear of the Futurians Alexis, Chris and Paul. My schedule is a bit light this year because of some personal conflicts, but I'll be around pretty much all weekend, off and on. If you want to catch me, here's my schedule.
10:00 AM-11:00 AM Dealers' Room
C. Osborne, J. L. Blaschke, A. M. Thomas, A. G. Latner

City Building
11:00 AM-Noon deWitt
R. Rogers, S. Lynch, M. Wells, S. Shinn, V. Docherty, J. L. Blaschke*
Creating a city that both works for your story, and makes sense for the world it is in.

Editing Wholesale
10:00 AM-11:00 AM deWitt
K. Lansdale, C. Roberson, J. Frenkel*, S. Utley, J. L. Blaschke
How does editing an anthology differ from editing a novel or single story?

Note that there will be a whole heck of a lot of other cool guests as well, so if you haven't planned on doing so prior, how about adding Armadillocon to your weekend itinerary?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Strange Horizons fund drive!

While the traditional sf magazines struggle to figure out why their readerships continually decline despite ever more infantile tentacle porn on the covers, and commercially funded online journals come and go, the mysterious elves of Strange Horizons continue to broadcast great new sf every week from their magical servers secreted in the basement of a 1908 warehouse in downtown Dubuque (not far at all from the Lovecraftian effigy mounds north of town).

Strange Horizons publishes great work by new writers and established writers—not just short fiction, but quality criticism and beautiful poetry.

Where else do the practitioners of that ultimate esoteric art, speculative poetry, find a well-read paying market to publish a new poem every week?

Where else does a young writer place a story about Borges on The Love Boat and magical realism as a weapon of mass destruction?

Where else do you find several new professional reviews every week of new work in the field?

Strange Horizons is probably the most successful example in the genre of a non-profit business model. Which means every once in a while they need to conduct a fund drive, which they're doing right now. A few bucks goes a long way to helping them pay their writers, update their web design, and continue to make the disproportionate contributions they make to the field. The tireless editors, folks like Susan Marie Groppi, Jed Hartman and Karen Meisner aren't getting paid, but they need our help to be able to pay their contributors and keep the project running.

Donate now! You might even be able to select from the fabulous prizes, including autographed copies of Fast Forward 2 and original art by yours truly for the sold-out Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet 23!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

SFWA statement on proposed Google book settlement

August 8, 2009

Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, Inc. (SFWA), in conjunction with outside counsel, has reviewed the terms of the proposed settlement between Google, Inc. and the Authors Guild, Inc., and other class action plaintiffs. On April 19, 2009, SFWA’s Board of Directors voted to stay in the claimant group in regard to SFWA-owned copyrights so that SFWA has standing to file a formal objection to the proposed settlement with the court. This decision should in no way be seen as an approval of the proposed settlement, nor construed as advice to either our members or writers with potential claims in general. Put simply, in order to file an objection, SFWA must opt-in as a claimant; should we opt-out, we lose our ability to formally object with the court.

Though it is clear that the proposed Google Book settlement is well-intentioned, the problems are myriad and, in SFWA’s opinion, the terms should be reviewed with extreme care by authors, in particular those authors who write fiction. Some of the particular problems we have identified include:
The proposed Google Book Settlement potentially creates a monopoly by granting Google excessive power to control the market for out-of-print books that are offered to the general public.

The “opt-out” mechanism proposed for the settlement contradicts the very foundation of copyright.

The financial impact on authors could be significant because the settlement would effectively thwart any third-party system from competing with Google and offering alternatives to authors of out-of-print works.

The terminology of the Google Book settlement makes no distinction, nor does it provide a mechanism for discovering the difference, between works deemed out-of-print and works in the public domain.

The class does not reflect the interested parties, primarily the holders of copyrights in "orphan works" where the rightsholder(s) cannot be identified or found.

The Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers are poor representatives of the class as neither represents the types of work perhaps most significantly affected by the settlement, namely scholarly works.

The class representatives do not include any authors of adult trade fiction, an obvious issue for SFWA.

The class fails to consider fully licensees of works and fails to account for their interests.

By settling, Google never fully addressed and litigated the issue of copyright infringement/fair use, which was at the heart of the 2005 lawsuit brought forth by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers. The settlement further obfuscates the issue of how Google’s scans and publication of the snippets should be treated under U.S. copyright law.

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list, but merely a sampling of some of the problems SFWA believes are inherent in the proposed settlement. SFWA is not advocating a particular course of action nor providing legal advice for individual authors, who should evaluate the proposed Google Book settlement based on their own situation and with the advice and input of their own legal counsel.

For the record, SFWA believes that the proposed Google Book settlement is fundamentally flawed and should be rejected by the court. With this public statement, we advise all authors and other writing organizations (in particular those who hold copyrights) to consult with legal counsel to ensure that they understand the precise meaning of the Google Book settlement, and the impact it may have on their own situation, should the settlement be approved.

For the Board of Directors,
Russell Davis
SFWA, Inc.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Stand by for further instructions

I have been quiet over here of late, too busy doing my part in the ongoing cyberwar at Sukhumi State. In the spirit of Paul's homage to civil defense communiques from the state, a few potentially liberating distractions for your slow Saturday.

1. Dery in Roma.

At Boing Boing, the brilliant Mark Dery is guestblogging a series of fantastic short essays based on his recent stint with the American Academy in Rome. Have witnessed it firsthand in another venue, I can assure you that no one does deep tourism like Mark, who should be liberated from the book and given his own cable show, like the semiotic Anthony Bourdain (if there's a frames-per-second medium that can keep up).

2. Riffing with Mats.


Over at The Quietus, an outstanding interview with Swedish maestro Mats Gustafsson, the brilliant punk who turns a jazz saxophone into a postmodern Gjallarhorn that heralds the Ragnarök of our everyday Zeitgeist.

Ohhh herregud . . . what’s that sound? That viscous, abrasive tone, resembling Albert Ayler drowning in hot bitumen? That squealing, squalling, peeling, mauling degradation of brass? That would be Sweden’s finest export, Mats Gustafsson. The prolific saxophonist has been an exponent of wildy unfettered improvisation since the early 1980s, working with everybody from improv legends Derek Bailey and Ken Vandermark to Italian hardcore math-skronk trio Zu and visonary sun-god eYe from the Boredoms.

His most stable project has been his long-standing trio The Thing, with bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love — a swinging harsh-jazz ensemble renowned for meaty deconstructions of Bowie, the White Stripes, Peter Brötzmann, Lightning Bolt and countless other unlikely targets.

How spontaneous or pre-planned is the music of The Thing?

MG: I was very influenced by Per Henrik Wallin (Swedish free-jazz pianist and composer). Hearing his Trio as a kid in the early ’80s . . . I’m happy to say that we took some of their music-making tools and made them ours.

We have a ‘book’ of perhaps a couple of hundred pieces, all in the fingers, feet and heads… and we never, ever decide what pieces to do before a performance. That’s the method that works best for us, just improvising with what we have. Whatever shows up, we play!

All the great music we can find, we try to use — be it hardcore or metal, tropicalia or schlager, noise or garage rock, free jazz or West Coast. We try to make it our music. The Thing’s music. Our concerts are always improvised. We have to find out during playing what pieces to do. I think that makes it much more involving for the audience as well. And for sure it keeps us on our toes!

Setlists suck.

What’s the source of the highly physical, almost violent aspects of The Thing’s music? Rage? Frustration? Joy?

MG: Peace, love, fire, vinyl, grappas and good BBQ! Again, ‘Music is like living, but better.’

3. Looping the apocalypse.

The Wall Street Journal examines the phenomenon of apocalypse movies, trying to understand what cultural forces propel the never-ending stream of of fantasies of the destruction of civilization. Especially interesting is the trend of filmmakers using real footage of contemporary catastrophes like Katrina and 9/11, decontextualized, to trigger the viewer's emotional experience. Even more interesting would be if WSJ would explore the link between apocalypse movies and the things covered on the front page of the chronicle of American business: the status of narratives of disaster and depopulation as works of realism, depicting the emotional reality of what it often feels like to live in our alienated society.

Friday, August 7, 2009

San Antonio launches Worldcon bid!

Hey kids! Remember LoneStarCon 2? Sure you do! It was a whole heck of a lot of fun way back in 1997. The first Worldcon ever held in Texas, in fact. Well, get ready, because we're about to do it again:

San Antonio is a city unrivaled for this kind of shindig. The folks there like to throw parties at the drop of a hat: A new stoplight is going up on Zarzamora Street? Fiesta! Don't believe me? Ask John Picacio, a San Antonio native. Or Scott Cupp. Or Damien Broderick, a transplant from Down Under. I expect Missions Unknown will be chok-full of Worldconly goodness in the months to come.

So what are you waiting for? Avoid the rush! Go buy your pre-supporting memberships now!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Walking by the Travis County Courthouse the other day and spotted a half rusted old school Civil Defense sign nailed above the limestone door. It reminded me that way back when, Austin almost prided itself in believing that it was high on the Soviet target list(whether true or not)--not so much because of the Capitol, but because Bergstrom AFB had a runway long enough to accomodate rerouted B-52s. (As an aside, I remember when I was a kid, my father told me that his tiny hometown of Hearne also had an emergency airfield that could serve bomber planes. Never believed him until he took me out to the outskirts of town and sure enough, there was a decrepit long ass flat surface of concrete that had to be half a mile long with shoots of grass making its way through cracks and absolutely nothing else around it).

Anyway, this past paranoid age can be seen in Target Austin, a local film in the This is Not a Test tradition that chronicles the possibility of a nuclear attack on the city and the need not to lose your head (hat tip to Atomic Hygiene). Walk calmly to the fallout shelter in your backyard. What’s that? You don’t have a shelter? Well . . .

For lifetime Austinites, this precious film has the added distinction of being narrated by Richard “Cactus” Pryor, a longtime radio fixture in town, one of the many Austin cronies who had his brief day in the sun during LBJ’s presidency.

Interestingly, Austin still has a Civil Defense Battalion, which you can join here if you are so inclined. I would, but there doesn't seem to be much denouncing of your neighbors involved, nor do you receive one of those cool old white metal pith helmets like this one:

Besides, they appear more concerned with things like floods and hurricanes, which don't have the same thrill for me as a strategic exchange with the Communists. On the other hand, you do apparently get a patch, which is nice:
--and also currently available on eBay for about 3 bucks.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Andre Norton Award jury seeking candidate submissions

The jury for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy is actively reading works published in 2009.

The 2009 Norton Award jury members are James Bassett, Aliette de Bodard, Patrick Lundrigan, Michael Payne, Lawrence Schoen, Sherwood Smith and Lindalee Stucky. Publishers and authors may contact for submission information.

The Andre Norton Award for an outstanding young adult science fiction or fantasy book was established in 2006 by Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. The award is named in honor of the late Andre Norton, a SFWA Grand Master and author of more than 100 novels, many of them for young adult readers. Norton's work has influenced generations of young people, creating new fans of the fantasy and science fiction genres and setting the standard for excellence in fantasy writing. Any book published as a young adult science fiction/fantasy novel is eligible, including graphic novels with no limit on word length.

About SFWA

Founded in 1965 by the late Damon Knight, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America brings together the most successful and daring writers of speculative fiction throughout the world.

Since its inception, SFWA® has grown in numbers and influence until it is now widely recognized as one of the most effective non-profit writers' organizations in existence, boasting a membership of approximately 1,500 science fiction and fantasy writers as well as artists, editors and allied professionals. Each year the organization presents the prestigious Nebula Awards® for the year’s best literary and dramatic works of speculative fiction.


Sunday, August 2, 2009

Lost Books, Part X: Alternities, by Michael P. Kube-McDowell

If there are parallel universes, it would be pleasant to think that Alternities had become a bestseller in at least one of them them, rather than disappearing from print as it has.

Alternities posits a series of parallel Earths, linked by a maze accessed through portals. When Endicott, a wealthy sadist, stumbles across one of these in his version of Philadelphia and finds his way to a parallel Boston, he sells the secret to the U.S. government in his new homeworld in exchange for a luxurious lifestyle - including a steady supply of attractive young women who he can torture to death.

The U.S. of the Home Alternity, sole possessor of this secret, uses the network of gatehouses to access other worlds and copy any inventions unknown in their own version of 1971. None of this knowledge, however, has made life significantly more comfortable for its citizens, who huddle in (they hope) bomb-proof shelters while the charismatic president, Peter (Rabbit) Robinson, attempts to place American nukes in England in response to Russian subs invading U.S. territorial waters.

Rayne Wallace is an interworld courier, trained in the customs of Alternity Red, until a riot threatens the gatehouse there and the gate is closed. Rather than anger his wife by taking a less well-paid position, he unintentionally infuriates her by accepting a long-term posting in Alternity Blue - where anti-nuclear sentiment has been heightened by sabotage on a reactor. Wallace seeks out the parallel version of his high school sweetheart, Shan, and begins an affair with her.

Robinson, seeing the risk of a nuclear war increase in the Home Alternity, stars planning to use Alternity Blue as a world-sized fallout shelter for his government and cronies. Endicott, whose parallel in Alternity Blue is still alive, begins making plans of his own.

One of the reasons I admire this novel is not just its creation of so many beautifully detailed alternative worlds, all of which diverged in the 1950s (our own timeline is discovered late in the novel, and merits only a brief line about President Carter), but the number of levels on which it works. Kube-McDowell does an excellent job of showing us the horror of Rayne's collapsing marriage and contrasting it with the erotic romance of his affair with Shan - but the dynamic is complicated by Rayne's obvious love for his young daughter, still living in a shelter in the Home Alternity. Kube-McDowell does an equally good job with the political drama of Robinson's dealings with his allies and enemies, foreign and domestic - including the growing hatred between his unscrupulous White House Chief of Staff and his conscience-driven Defense Secretary. The novel begins with an action-packed scene as Rayne blunders into the aftermath of what seems to be a full-fledged civil war and must do his best to preserve the Secret of the gatehouses - and for added suspense, there's the shadowy presence that many of the couriers have felt as they wander through the maze between gates.

So, that's political thriller, romance with more than a dash of sex, action-adventure, espionage, a psychodrama that never descends into soap-opera territory. Not bad for 380 pages.

Though Kube-McDowell weaves these subplots together extremely well, with unexpected but plausible twists, the novel is not without some minor inconsistencies. For example, though the maze is lethal to anyone carrying metal, the 'souvenirs' that Robinson shows his cabinet include metal coins. And the brief glimpses Kube-McDowell gives us of the other alternities are almost as frustrating as they are intriguing.

That aside, as I said, this is an excellent novel which - despite its 1970s setting - deserves to be more widely read. And in the best of all possible worlds, perhaps it was.