I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Saturday, December 17, 2005

Nothing profound

So, yesterday was a slow day at work... the first truly slow day I've had at work since moving to this location. I spent the morning searching the web for free Mountain Goats MP3s and found over 30 of them. Most of these are live recordings from various concert venues, plus a few demos and outtakes from earlier albums. About half of the material I found was of songs I'd never heard before, the other half was familiar material with a new twist. "Delaudid" performed solo with guitar instead of the orchestrated cellos of the album version was raw and gripping, but the original version of "Coroner's Gambit" was awful--the lyrics are the same, but the music is too driving and uptempo for a song about death. It's interesting to see where the creative process led both these songs from thier original forms.

But the song that stuck with me is one called "Elijah." This is also from the Coroner's Gambit album, and when I've listened to it in the past I've been intriqued by what the lyrics possibly meant. I assumed it was a song about reincarnation, because I've been listening to it without noticing the title. As an MP3, the title is showing now as I'm driving around in the Scion and, duh, the song isn't about reincarnation, it's about Elijah. He was a Biblical prophet taken up into Heaven who supposedly will return to announce the arrival of the messiah. The song refers to setting out an extra plate--I think this is an actual Jewish tradition, to leave a plate out for Elijah during the celebration of one of their holidays. (I don't know which one, alas... all I know about the tradition I learned from the Saturday Night Live where Jerry Seinfield plays Elijah showing up for dinner. He asks the teenage daughter of the family to answer three questions: "First, are you a virgin?" She "Yes." "Then forget my other two questions.") In any case, this got me thinking that people probably do carry on this tradition, after almost 3000 years of Elijah failing to show up, just as Christians still fervently believe Jesus might show up any minute despite his 2000 year delay. And, rather than striking me as silly or absurd, it strikes me as beautiful, this human ability to believe fervently in the impossible (or highly unlikely).

The ability, even the need, to believe in impossible things is, after all, the very thing that makes all fiction possible. I couldn't make up stories, write them, and have people read them and like them without that important bit of wiring in the human brain that allows us to regard the imaginary as being as real as the real. I'm currently reading "Snow Crash" by Neil Stephenson. It's the sort of book that, while I'm reading it, I'm actually drawn into a second reality where the characters seem like living beings and the imagined settings seem quite solid and real to me. When I put the book down, the illusion vanishes, of course, but it's still a pleasurable experience.

So, perhaps religion can be viewed as fiction that people can't put down. Or, perhaps good fiction is a little, temporary religion that makes you believe in a new creation if only for a few hours.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

In Search of Ancient Idiots

So, every now and then I like to read the sort of trashy 70's paperbacks I was addicted to when I was a teenager. There were dozens of books out about the Bermuda Triangle, ancient astronauts, UFO's, and Bigfoot, and I eagerly devoured them all. I was addicted the implication that there might be some huge secret just waiting to be revealed, some final proof of alien life visiting Earth, or of a second, primitive race of man still hiding in the forests.

I recently found a copy of "In Search of Ancient Mysteries" in a Goodwill Store for a nickel. Who can argue with that price? I read it, wondering if I could still work up that sense of wonder and mystery I'd loved so much as a teen. Alas, no. I'm really left more with the impression that my teen self was a moron. The authors main premise is so self-evidently awful that I can't believe there were enough readers for this book to justify a dozen printings, as the cover boasts. The premise is a familiar one: All the great stone monuments built in ancient times could not have been built by ancient man alone. The blocks must have been carved and moved great distances with the help of advanced alien civilizations. As added proof, any rock carving of a man wearing a funny hat is held up as portraying an astronaut in a space helmet. Any triangular rock is pointed to as a delta winged aircraft, any circle is called a flying saucer.

Many critiques have pointed out that this genre of book is insulting to ancient humans, who were quite capable of these wonderful feats of stone engineering. But, I can't help but think they are also insulting to the ancient alien civilizations as well. They came there across vast reaches of interstellar space and built homes for themselves, and the best material they knew how to use was rock? They built all these giant stone buildings with no running water, no electrical outlets, etc., and they are supposed to be more advanced than we are? Show me a Mayan temple built out of 2000 year old plastic and I might be a little more convinced.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Going Too Far

Yesterday, I found the December Asimov's in a local Borders and peeked inside to confirm that I wasn't dreaming, that this issue did indeed contain my story "To the East, a Bright Star." I also noticed something standing in the bookstore that I was blind to in my subscription copy. There's a warning label on my story! "A word of warning: there are brief scenes in this story that may be disturbing to some readers." I don't recall ever seeing that label in another issue of Asimov's before. (Although I've since been informed they've done it for a few years now.)

I'm slightly more flattered than offended by the label. Part of me does wonder what, precisely, earned the warning. I suppose it was explicit drug use. Worse, it's explicit drug use that doesn't ruin the character's lives.

Yet another part of me views the label as completely extraneous. My story might disturb people. Why did they need the word "might" in there? Has fiction become so bland and timid that writers no longer produce disturbing stories? In the stories I'm most proud of, I almost always come to a moment where I'm disturbed by what I'm writing. There's a moment where I think, "I can't write this--I'm going too far." In Nobody Gets the Girl, I felt this way when Rail Blade has her temper tantrum in Jerusalem. Then, I topped my discomfort a chapter later when Rail Blade's father sticks the needle in her veins and delivers the lethal dose of poison. In "Empire of Dreams and Miracles," I felt this way when the Dobay the Gold admits his lust for his transgendered father, and later when he gets his eye gouged out by a clawhammer. In "Perhaps the Snail," I write about masturbation in the back seat of a cab, and took comfort in the fact that the story was so offensive it would never be published and I would be spared the embarassment of having people read it. (I was wrong on the never being published part.)

Perhaps there are some writers who get a thrill out of shocking their readers, and purposefully set out to be sexually explicit or ultra violent. I am not one of those writers. Each time I get to one of these scenes, it's a struggle. I worry about losing readers. Worse, I worry that one day, against all odds, my parents might pick up a science fiction anthology and find out what kind of sicko crap I'm churning out. Yet when I come to these scenes, I never have the option of simply not writing them. My stories often climax with a single, transformative moment in a character's life, and these moments are often disturbing and uncomfortable for the protagonist. If, in "Perhaps the Snail," Devie had decided to go get some ice cream instead of agreeing to be a nude piece of living furniture for her rock star idol, I might have had produced a story that didn't offend anyone. Instead I decided to tell the story of the worst moment of her life--and show how humans are capable of taking these worst moments and flipping them around until they become the moments of thier greatest strength. I write about trauma so that I can write about transformation.

If you aren't convinced the human mind is programmed to make these flips, I have more evidence. I write stuff that I'm embarrassed to write--and later feel proud of it.

So, yeah, some scenes may be disturbing to some readers. If they aren't, then I'm just wasting my time.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Harlan Ellison

So, just now my phone rings and it turns out to be Harlan Ellison. He read to "To the East, a Bright Star," in Asimov's and wanted to welcome me to the community of professional writers. He also told me that I should have used "as" instead of "like" in the sentence, "It worked quickly, like he remebered."

Harlan Ellison changed my life, a couple of times. First, when I was a teenager, leaving behind a very theistic view of the world and making my first intellectual forays into a science-based world, I read every bit of SF I could lay my hands on. Harlan Ellison's work stood out. I loved everything he wrote. I loved all the long essays and introductions in his anthologies, I loved his world view. I wanted to be a writer, and, not so secretly, I wanted to be Harlan Ellison. He was the ultimate in cool to me when I was 17. I really knew nothing about him but the word he had put on paper, but his words charged me up like lightning.

The second time Harlan changed my life, he was writer in residence the year I went to Odyssey. This made my trip to Odyssey something of a religious experience. The way some pilgrims might journey to Italy to see the Pope, I journeyed a thousand miles to spend a week in his presense. At the workshop, Harlan tore me apart. He ripped to shreds every story I submitted at the workshop. He did have a few nice things to say, but I still have the paper where he circled a misspelling in the first line of my story and wrote "You're writing like a goddamn illiterate redneck." He capped it all of my not even reading my final story and dismissing me as too arrogant for him to waste his time on. The final night of Harlan's stay, I cried like I had never cried in my life. I felt like he had completely crushed my dreams of being a writer. He had taken everything I had written and dismissed it as crap. He had made me look incompetent and ignorant.

It was a huge favor, one which I finally got the chance to thank him for. Because in crushing my dream of being Harlan Ellison, he helped me form a new dream of being James Maxey. By tossing in the wastebin ten years of writing, he gave me the freedom to write in a new and better style, and write stories that were less imitatative of what I had read before.

So, having him call me was a shock. Having him call me a colleague is an honor. And having him correct my story after it's published is a thrill. Yowza.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Bill Bennett=Racist

So, in my last post I mentioned my recent insomnia. I was so tired I felt drunk. Here it is five hours later, and I'm wide away. Well, "wide" may be the wrong adjective there. I'm narrowly awake, awake by a bare sliver, yet it's a vital sliver. A voice in my head just won't shut up. What kills me is that other people probably get voices in thier heads that worry about important stuff. I'm kept awake by the worst kinds of trivia. I don't know if you've ever seen the comic strip "Syvia." Nicolle Hollander has a running gag about "The Woman Who Worries About Everything." In these strips, the woman is awake in bed thinking about some new political development--Friday, the woman wakes up her husband by worrying out loud about pharmacists refusing to fill prescription drugs, for instance. I identify with this on so many levels. "Sylvia" is one of my all time favorite strips with a political bent. I like Doonesbury and the Boondocks, but seldom do I find myself laughing out loud over their particular brand of humor. They usually devote thier energies to making fun of right wing politics, which is fine by me, but "Sylvia" usually has a more absurdist spin on things. She's making fun of right-wingers, often savagely, but there is also a subtle recognition in her political commentary that recognizes that outrage and fear over a lot of political issues is funny in it's own right. I think she's aware that waking up in the middle of the night to worry about the FDA or Tom Delay or Halliburton is a fairly absurd reaction to most politics. She's making fun of politics, but also making fun of people who take politics seriously.

Which brings me back to my insomnia, and the stupid stuff I worry about. Tonight it's Bill Bennett. By now, most people have probably heard about his suggestion that we abort all black babies to reduce crime. I read about it on Buzzflash, on Democratic Underground, and on Media Matters. Deomocratic Underground has a thread calling for this racist cracker's head on a platter--or, short of that, demanding that he be taken off the air. There's a petition going around, yadda yadda. I heard the clip played on the Alan Colmes show, and thought it was pretty amazing that Bill Bennett had said such a thing. It was also puzzling, because I thought he was opposed to abortion. Sure, maybe he hated black people, but didn't he also hate abortions?

So, driving home yesterday, I heard a longer version of the quote, and more about the context of the quote. Turns out, he doesn't support aborting all black babies. Nor was it even his argument--he plainly states that it's an argument he read in a book called "Freakanomics." And then, in the sentence immediately following his presentation of that arguement, he goes on to call the argument rediculous and morally reprehensible. It's a common defense of politicians to claim that they've been taken out of context--but all the outrage over these remarks plainly requires that his comments be taken way, way out of context. To spin this like this is Bennett's belief requires a level of intellectual dishonesty that makes me ashamed of my fellow human beings.

This isn't just something the left does to demonize the right. The right did it as well with their spin that Gore claimed to have invented the internet. It's a claim he never made, based on spinning a factual and much more modest claim that Gore had been supportive of legislation that funded development of networks while he had been in congress. This is an easily verified, totally non-controversial statement for Gore to make. So, of course, the right wing spin machine yanked his comments out of context and eventually rewrote them to turn Gore into a liar, based on a lie that he never told.

What kills me is how well this works. I don't have any hard polling data, but I would guess that the number of people who believe Gore claims to have invented the internet is up around 70 or 80 percent. The number of people who believe that Dan Quayle went to Latin America and lamented that he didn't speak Latin is probably higher than that--once again based on something that he never said. And now this Bill Bennett thing--a year from now, all people will know about him is that he's the guy who wants to kill black babies.

So, tonight I'm blaming my insomnia on my concerns about the collective ignorance of Americans. Now that that's out of my system, I'm going back to bed.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Total collapse

Finished this week with 15 hours overtime, assuming I don't go in to work more this weekend. Totally exhausted, though I had a nice caffiene-like jolt when I got my paycheck from the last two week period. I had 15 hours overtime on that check--this week I've matched that, and still have a week to go. It helped that I finally got a raise after a year and a half since my last performance review. Way back then the company was going through belt tightening and there were salary caps set at ridiculously low levels that I had long since passed. I was shocked to get any raise at all back then--and insulted that the raise was a dime. Seriously. Ten freakin' cents. Why bother? My raise this time is nothing to brag about, but it did manage to squeak above the level of insulting. It more than makes up for the fact that driving to work costs twice as much as it did a year ago.

All week long I've had serious insomnia. I thought I'd be collapsed long before now. I've been sitting around playing Spider Solitaire and singing in an off-key country twant to They Might Be Giant's "Cyclops Rock." "You turn around and break my heart" is part of the lyrics, and that's just about as country as you can make a lyric, in my opinion. I feel drunk. In conversation at dinner, I felt like I was in pure babble mode. I'm probably babbling now.

Man, I need to sleep.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005


Man, I got home today totally wiped out. I left work at 1:30 am--after clocking in at 10am. 15 1/2 hours of my life I'll never get back. It's Tuesday, and I've already worked 24 hour this week, with another 27 scheduled. I drove home completely brain dead--and found the December issue of Asimov's in my mailbox, containing my short story "To the East a Bright Star." Sweet! Now I can quit my day job!

Oh, wait a minute. I've already spent that money. Ah, well.

Curiously, during the summer, when work was kind of slow, I was writing very little. Now that September has hit and half the staff quit, forcing me into long, stressful hours, I'm writing pretty steadily. Unfortunately, I'm not writing science fiction. Having made two sales to Asimov's I'm really wanting to send them more SF, but all my story ideas lately have been mainstream and horror. The piece I currently have submitted is only tangentally SF, and probably more deserving of the label "fantasy" since it has the angel Gabriel as one of the characters. I wish now I hadn't sold som many SF stories to Phobos for their anthologies. I've published some pretty good stories in books that barely sold a thousand copies.

Okay, 2:30. I'm tuckered, even with the Asimov's jolt. Best go to bed.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Libertarians in 08! Rah, rah!

Speaking of doomed love, the Libertarian party in NC has been decertified. My registration has been switched by the state from LIB to IND. I wish I could work up more of a sense of outrage about this. A lot of libertarians I talk to are truly convinced that if people would only hear their ideas, they would win elections. The ultimate Libertarian campaign slogan would be "OUT." As in "Out of Iraq, out of our bedrooms, out of our wallets." To me, this is a very atractive proposition.

Out of Iraq (and Germany, and Korea, and Japan, etc.). We shouldn't be using our army for anything but defense of our own borders. The case was never made to me that Saddam Hussien was a real threat to America, and to the level that he was a threat, there are a half dozen other countries more deserving of our attention as breeding grounds for terrorism, places like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, our supposed allies. Not that I'm advocating invading any of these places.

Out of our bedrooms: The level of hostility some people feel toward sex is astonishing. I would say that a firm majority of people would strongly agree with the statement, "Sexual activity should only take place in the context of a monogomous marriage." And I would say that a large majority of people who strongly agree with that statement had premarital sex or had affairs. I'm not opposed to people holding this point of view, by the way. To each his own. But the government shouldn't be involved in regulating consensual sexual activity.

Out of our wallets: The first two outs get a lot of liberals excited. But the last out pisses them off. The income tax needs to be abolished. The notion that if I work a 10 hour day, 3 of those hours are mandated at gunpoint to be worked for the financial benefit of others is outrageous. We wouldn't need an income tax if we didn't feel compelled to station troops all over the world, and to fund massive entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. The real work we need government for, crime fighting and road building, is a tiny portion of our national spending, less than a tenth. We could fund it with a lottery and bake sales.

Did I have a point to all this? Oh, yeah. The point is, Libertarians don't get votes not because people don't hear thier positions, but because they hold positions that almost all conservitives and liberals rabidly disagree with. Conservatives oppose cutting our military and letting people sleep with whoever they want to sleep with, liberal oppose eliminating the income tax and entitlement programs. The only way that libertarians will ever make it into power is for our candidates to lie through their teeth at every opportunity and tell people what they want to hear.

It works for the other two parties.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Still more God and Hurricane Yammering

So, of course this morning I notice yet another article on World Net Daily making the claim that Hurricane Rita is God's way of communicating to America that we are a sinful, sinful, nation. A letter to the editor yesterday argued that because we were a wicked people who had lost our way, God had lifted his protective hand and, while not sending hurricanes, he also was no longer stopping them.

Some people have noted that Las Vegas never gets Hurricanes, so God must love gambling, but I think they overlook the continuous drought that plagues that city, which is plainly God's judgement.

I will note that God apparently loves commies, since when they ruled the Soviet Union, I can't think of a single istance of a hurricane striking that country. But maybe they just hushed it up, sneaky bastards.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

I don't understand the internet at all....

So, of course, I just posted a note about my lost posts, which I believed to be forever lost, and suddenly they pop up. I just don't understand the internet at all....

Well, bummer

So last night, I wrote a fairly long blog about my usual list of random stuff, and saved a draft on blogger, and today it's gone. The title of the post is still there, but the post itself can't be recovered.

Among other things, I was writing about the notepad I keep by my bed. I jot down quick notes when I wake up in the middle of the night and stumble onto some "brilliant" idea. I started doing this when I wrote Nobody Gets the Girl, and it worked well then. I was actually jotting down stuff that proved useful in writing the story. Ever since, not so much. Currently I have a column down the edge of one page where I've written--


-- and next to this I've written the words "thin nog" and underlined it three times.

I wish it meant something, but, alas, the nothings probably mean nothing.

I've toyed with the idea of writing a novel entitled "Nothing." I already have published a novel about "Nobody." I could write a third book called "Nowhere" and have a nihilistic trilogy. Maybe I shouldn't feed reviewers such easy straight lines though.

There was also a bit about the Justice League in the lost post, but I'm bored with the idea right now. Maybe later.

The stuff I jot down while I'm not sleeping.

I keep a notepad next to my bed where I jot down stuff in those dark hours of the night where I wake up and can't sleep because I have some story snippet or idea going through my head. I usually write without glasses or light, so some of my scrawls are indecipherable. Others can be ciphered just fine, but still don't make much sense. On my current page, I've written "nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing" in a column down the page, then next to the column I've written "thin nog" and underlined it about three times. Why? My head and my hand generated the words. Shouldn't they make at least some sense to me? Admittedly, I write about nothing a lot. And, I have toyed around with writing a book entitled "Nothing." I've already published a book about Nobody. I could finish off the trilogy with Nowhere. Sell the three together as a boxed set of nihilism. Somehow, though, the "thin nog" makes me suspect I wasn't thinking of the philisophical implications of the word as much as I was viewing it as a rack of Scrabble tiles.

Also jotted on the current page is a story idea about a man who is living in a friend's house, and the friend doesn't know it. He hides in the attic and basement, in the crawlspace in the walls, and only comes out to use the bathroom and kitchen when his friend's at work. That's it. That's all I've got.

Finally, for some reason, at 3am on some recent date, I felt compelled to jot down "Every member of the Justice League has been replaced." This wasn't a plot idea, just an observation. Superman was replaced by several different characters in his own books during the "Death of" storyline. One of his replacements, Steel, went on to join the League. Wonder Woman was replaced by some red-haired chick whose name escapes me. Hal Jordan Green Lantern has had three different League replacements, Gardner, Raynor, and Stewart. Green Arrow was replaced briefly by his son. Flash was replaced permanently by Kid Flash, who is now Flash, and has a new Kid Flash replacing him in Teen Titans. Batman wasn't replaced in the League, but he was in his own book for a while by Azreal. Hawkman--well, his continuity is so messed up, as near as I can figure, he was replaced by himself. Same with Aquaman--orange shirt Aquaman was replaced by no-shirt, long-haired Aguaman. The Atom was replaced by a second Atom in the pages of Suicide Squad. His replacement croaked, a common fate of replacement heroes, unless they are replacement Green Lanterns, in which case they hang around forever, drinking the League's beer. Only the Martian Manhunter has escaped the "let's swap the old one for a new one" plot line. This excludes, of course, a long list of minor Leaguers like Zatanna and Vixen.

Man, I have a lot of useless crap in my skull.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

God Could Also Use A Good Ad Agency

So last night I blogged about the in-your-face God of my youth and how the current ACLU fearing, court-order shackled God of today seems a touch wimpy. This morning, I discover a link to this book on WND: http://shop.wnd.com/store/item.asp?ITEM_ID=1676

The premise of the book is that a mighty God is striking America with hurricanes and terrorists because we've been so mean to Israel. The author claims that every time we betray Isreal, God smites us with a natural disaster.

Let us assume the author is right. Doesn't this show his God as one of the least effective communicators ever? He's trying to get his message across with wind and water--and apparently, most people just aren't able to figure him out. It turns out that few people speak tornado. This is like one of those Men are from Mars/Women are from Venus thing. God is from Heaven, Man is from Earth. They each talk at one another, but don't really have any idea what the other one actually means. God says "Hurricane," meaning, "Stop fucking with Jews." People take this message and think, "Oh no, I'm homeless, how can this happen under the watch of a just God, woe is me." People then pray, "Lord, please spare us more hurricanes and death." God hears this and thinks, "They still aren't getting it! What these people need are more hurricanes and death!" It's a sick, doomed strategy that has lead to grief for five thousand years, and will keep doing so.

God wasn't always this bad at communications. The whole Ten Commandments thing--that was pretty good. Write down the rules in stone. People can get this.

If I were an ad agency consulting with God, here would by my advice. Go back to the divine chiselling of rock. Money is no object, nor are the laws of physics, so think big. If you don't want people to mess with Israel, write, "Don't mess with Israel!" in letters about 200 miles high on the face of the moon. If we can see a giant finger as it traces out the letters in the moondust, even better. I guarantee you, it will be a zillion times more effective than the hurricanes. God gets what he wants, no humans get hurt in the conveying of the message, it's win-win all around.

So, there it is, free advice to God. Never let it be said that we atheists aren't charitable.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Got God?

You know, as an atheist of many years, I get especially frustrated when I feel like I need to explain Christianity to Christians. Tonight on the way home I was listening to a talk show host on a rant over some judge in California declaring the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegence unconstitutional. This is an issue where I normally just roll my eyes and sigh. If I were writing the Pledge of Allegience, I wouldn't put the word "God" into it. Nor would I invoke him if I were declaring independence or drafting a constitution or even designing money. On the other hand, I am not so fragile and frail in my atheism that the words "under God" in a pledge cause me to reexamine my entire belief structure when I hear them. Nor have I ever picked up a quarter and read "In God We Trust" and suddenly thought, "Oh crap! I've been wrong this whole time!"

But, evidently, quite a few people are this frail--especially on the Christian side. Tonight the talk show host said "We've banned God from schools." He went on with variations of kicking God out of schools, removing God from courtrooms, banishing God from congress, etc. And I have to think to myself--just how impotent is your God if a court ruling is going to keep him out of a schoolroom? When I was a child, I grew up in a fundamentalist church. There was a mighty and powerful God--omipotent, omnipresent, infinite and incomprehensible. He was a God who was just as powerful on the surface of the moon as he was at the bottom of the sea as he was on the plains of Africa as he was in the subway of New York City. He was a God that was just flat out EVERYWHERE, in EVERYONE'S business every single moment of the day and night and he definitely wasn't a God who was going to get discouraged by a court ruling against him. Of course, paradoxically, according to the church, he was also a God who controlled everything. Your baby died? It was God's will. You won the lottery? It was God's will. The New Orlean's flood? God guided every molecule of water. So, by the tenants of my church, it was God's will that the judge rule as he did today, and that I be a snarky atheist with an internet audience of dozens.

Alas, for the talk show host's God, he needs a good lawyer and better politicians to get anything done. If I were the host, I'd think about shopping for a new religion. Something more fundamental. Old time religion. Like volcano worship. Let's see them try to ban volcanoes from classrooms.

Comment spam???

You know, people today just have a whole different set of problems than the human beings who proceeded us on the planet. I was happy to see some comments on an earlier post today--until I discovered they were spam for some mortgage company. I should have seen this coming I suppose. Spam has already made my e-mail unreliable. My spam filters sometimes catch messages I should have gotten, and all the time my messages get eaten by my friend's spam filters. E-mail is becoming more and more like putting a message in a bottle and hoping it washes up on the right shore somewhere.

Of course, spam exposes me as a hypocrit. I am a free market, free speech kind of libertarian. Deregulate commerce! Let people say anything they want to say anyway they want to say it! Yet somewhere around the deletion of the 10,000th penis enlargement ad, I start wondering why the government isn't shutting these people up. Bring on the jackbooted thugs! Ah, well. Consistancy is the hobgoblin of little minds, I suppose.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Bad comics, bad politics, random garbage

I just got back from the mountains where I visited an old friend of mine, Eric Buchanan and his wife Suzanne Saunders. They are artists who have made their living the last decade living in New Orleans. They escaped fairly well in some respects--they got out ahead of the hurricane, they got their cats out, they had friends and family in they could turn to for help. What remains of their paintings, etc. left behind, they don't know. With luck, looters won't rob them blind--but it might take even more luck to keep mold from destroying thier work.

Eric and I are of deeply different political stripes. He's a yellow-dog Democrat who has never voted for a Republican, I'm a hard core Libertarian who has voted only once for a Democrat and once for a Republican in the last twenty years. (I voted for Jim Hunt over Jesse Helms--for what that was worth, and I voted for a Republican sherrif when I lived in Guilford county because he struck me as one of the least bullshit filled politicians I had ever heard, and there wasn't a Libertarian running.) But, we agreed on the broad issues of Hurricane Katrina--the government has blown the intitial response, and they are continuing to blow it. Stung by the criticism that they didn't evacuate the city before the storm, federal, state, and local government now want to empty the city in the aftermath--even parts of the city relatively high and dry, like the French Quarter. Yes, the city is a dangerous place right now, with the risk of lawlessness and disease. But keeping out the people most motivated to go in and clean up the mess is crazy. If this is a recovery run from the top down, it will be a disaster. Yes, there are large scale items the government must handle--pumping out the water, putting police on the street, getting ambulances and firetrucks back in business. But every home and business in New Orleans needs someone in it working to fix things on the small scale. I listened to a story on NPR about a guy whose house had been lightly flooded staying behind to pull out his carpets and swab down everything with bleach. We need guys like that in every house not actually under water. Yes, there are a lot of houses that aren't going to be saved with a claw hammer and a mop--but there are a lot more houses that could have been saved if their owners weren't kept out of the city. The government isn't going to go into people's homes and pull up damp carpets--nor should it. But it shouldn't be putting up unneccessary roadblocks in front of people willing to put their muscles and sweat into saving thier homes.

Which brings me to comic books. Actually, it doesn't--I've been so neglectful of my blog, I've forgotten stuff that I've written, and I see I had promised long ago to write about bad comic books. I wish I could say that there are so many to pick from it's hard to pick the worst--but, really, there are so many to pick from, and it's still easy to pick the worst. Hands down, "The Dark Knight Strikes Back," is the worst comic book I've ever read. Frank Miller is a comic book genius, responsible for The Dark Knight Returns, one of the highest achievements of the genre. It seems impossible that TDKSB is the work of the same man. Everything about it is wrong. The artwork is bad. While visually similar to The Dark Knight Returns, the artwork in Strikes Back is just lazy--computer generated backgrounds and special effects fill the many splash pages. And the costumes are abominable--the outfit he puts the Flash in is just embarrassing. Wonder Woman is to only character who looks halfway decent in this thing. Lex Luther is just a toadish squiggle, barely recognizable as a human being if it weren't for the coloring and the word balloons and the fact that everyone is addressing the squiggle as "Luthor." Plot-wise, the story is could be described in positive terms as "epic," but in more realistic terms as unfocused and confusing. The story also suffers from repetition--for instance, in the Dark Knight Returns, there is a cool fight where Batman beats up Superman. So, in the Dark Knight strikes back, there is a "cool" scene where Batman's army beats up Superman. Except it isn't cool, it's tedious. We've seen this before.

I have a million gripes about the book, but only have the energy right now to mention the truly horrible ending. Basicly, Batman convinces Superman to become Superfascist and rule the world. Seriously. Oh, and Batman kisses Robin. Not a friendly, "oh, it's good to see you" kiss, but a "let's get naked and make squishy noises" kind of kiss. Admittedly, Robin is female, and is probably 18, but Batman is, like, 90, and it's just wrong on so many levels.

I have one theory that about Dark Knight Strikes back: Frank Miller made it as bad as possible on purpose. I think he was harrassed for 20 years by DC to do a sequel. They probably offered him obscene sums of money. And I'd like to think he finally decided to take their money and make a book that met the contractual obligation but was so bad they wouldn't dare publish it. Only, the powers that be at DC were so blind to what makes a good comic book that the published it under the illusion that it really was worthy of publication, or else they knew it was crap, but also knew people would buy anything with Frank Miller and Batman on the cover.

Okay, so this has been a pretty random blog. With luck, I won't go 40 days without posting again, and can be more coherent next time. Or not.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Summer break

Wow, almost a month since my last post. I've been on something of a summer break, with 9 internet free days while I went to Trinoccon and then to the beach. The month hasn't been completely unproductive. I read the book Darwin on Trial, which was very interesting. It's a critique of Darwinism by an attorney who is quite adept at building arguments. (Sorry, the author escapes me--I'd have to walk almost twenty five feet to my bedroom to find out his name.) Anyway, it was a very good read--he's a good writer, very thought provoking. And, I will say that after reading the book, I am convinced that there are holes in the evidence for natural selection, and a lot of sloppy science has been done over the years in support of the theory. But, I thought this before I read the book--science is sloppy because people are sloppy, and any time you are trying to account for a 4 billion year timeline of life, you are probably going to be filling most of that time line with guesswork. But, I closed the book still feeling confident that natural selection is the best theory we have toward explaining the origin of species. The author, and attorney, claims that you don't need a competing theory to disprove Darwin, any more than you need to produce the real murderer to clear a man of a murder charge. But, sorry, that's the thing about a theory being the "best" theory. I would need to hear another, better theory before I would be willing to toss it in the trash.

In physics, there are some awfully big holes in the theory of gravity. Our theory of gravity predicts that galaxies should behave in a certain manner--yet when we observe them, their is a 90% discrepancy between theory and observation. This is a pretty big honking discrepancy. And scientists are resorting to imagination, mostly to explain the gap, postulating new forms of invisible "dark" matter. And so far, almost every prediction about the nature and form of this dark matter has proven to be unsupported by evidence--tests designed to find the matter almost invariably get negative results. Yet, scientists don't toss out the theory of gravity. It works on the short scale--we can put spaceships in orbit around Saturn within inches of where we aim them, using the theory. One day, I have faith that a new, better theory of gravity will emerge--but in the absense of the better theory, I'm not going to say the old one is nothing but bunk.

The unspoken argument in "Darwin on Trial" seemed to me to be, if Darwin was wrong, then God still created species. But where's the evidence for that? It's as if logic and evidence can be used against a theory built on logic and evidence, but we can toss those out the window if we come to a theory built only on faith. I confess, I can't see how this arguement can win anyone over.

In writing news, I've spent much of July working on a story I just finished yesterday. I really, really want to talk about this story, but I can't because it's getting entered into a contest, and people who might judge stories in that contest are also occasional readers of this blog. I will only say that it may be the worst thing I've ever written. And when I use the word "worst," I mean in a moral sense, as in contributing to the further degredation of all that is right and good in the universe. Writing-wise, I think it's spot on.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

4th of July

The 4th of July was a hoot this year. Laura's daughter Veronica won first prize for her Statue of Liberty costume at the Carrboro Hooha (I don't know the official name of the celebration, sorry). We later got to see some kick-ass fireworks, and mow the yard. (Not in that order.)

At this point, I would usually twist this opening around to some sort of rant on politics or religion, but, you know what, never mind.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Church of Atheism

Today being Father's Day, Laura and I were talking about our fathers and she mentioned that her dad had once had a serious discussion with her to warn her not to become a Scientologist. This is no doubt good advice, but strange advice, since at no point in Laura's life has she ever had any inclination at all to become a scientologist. For starters, she doesn't have the money. An even bigger obstacle, of course, is that the central beliefs of Scientologists are completely wacko. Let's face it: If you get to the part where your guru (or whatever they have in Scientology--an auditor, I think) is telling you the part about the intergalactic lord Xemu and you don't break out in a broad grin and laugh at how dumb all of this is, there is no hope for you. You have swallowed the Kool-aid.

Laura's 11 year old son, Simon, hadn't heard of scientology and asked us about it when he heard our conversation. He was actually somewhat inspired at the notion that a pulp science fiction writer could invent his own religion and rope in converts, and spent the ride home from the restaurant jotting down notes for starting his own religion. He wrote out his own ten commandments, only he didn't know how to spell commandments, so he called it the "To Do" list. Also, I think he only got through about six of them. Among them were "don't be picky" and "share your food." Religions have been built on foundations nowhere near as solid as this.

Which led me to remember my second wedding. Not my second marriage, which is mostly blotted out now, with only three whiny cats to remind me it ever happened at all. But the wedding was interesting because we wanted something fancier that just going down to the courthouse, but by state law we needed some ordained pastor to perform the ceremony. We finally settled on a Unitarian minister who promised not to use the words "God" or "prayer" in the ceremony. She broke her word, alas, deviating from the script in the actual ceremony. After that, I gave serious thought to starting my own Church of Atheism. Churches have many, many advantages. They make great places to hold weddings and funerals. They are nice meeting places to socialize with like-minded folks. They also provide a terrific support net for members, a community to turn to in times of trouble and grief, or to share in celebration. Finally, they frequently have great architecture and nifty art. So, there are dozens of things I love about churches--but I can never belong to one because I'm unwilling to sit there and listen to fairy tales for an hour. I have no doubt that there are people in this world who go to church because they enjoy the fringe benefits of church without actually sharing the beliefs of the church. My old scoutmaster, who was a member of my church, loved being a church member. But get him outside the confines of the church and he was a prone to telling dirty jokes and sneaking six-packs along on camping trips. I'm not saying he wasn't a good person, or even that he wasn't, in his mind, a christian. But he regularly engaged in behavior outside the church that he would condemn within it. Something about churches seems to breed hypocrits--although, of course, that could just be the nature of the human beast. There are so many hypocrits on so many levels throughout society that the church population just reflects the general population as a whole.

But, still, there are times when I fantasize about buying an old church one day, and replacing the stained glass window on the front with a mosiac of a big, cartoon monkey winking his eye, giving a thumbs up, and saying in a big word balloon, "Darwin Rocks!" Each Friday night me and my fellow atheists could get together and socialize. (One foundation of atheism we must not surrender would be the right to sleep late on Sunday mornings.) We could distribute little Chic-style tracts entitled "There is No God" and "This is Your Afterlife." (That last one would be nothing but blank pages.)

Would we have Commandments? Or, as Simon put it, a To Do list?

How about:

Remember this is your only life: Cherish it.

Cherish your loved ones; you have only your shared lifetimes to show your love.

Live responsibly: there are no higher forces to bail you out of the messes you create.

Hmm. Only three. Maybe that's enough. Probably three too many, in some people's mind. If you must have more, how about:

Don't be picky.

Share your food.


Thursday, June 16, 2005

Body and Soul

So tonight I read that the Terri Shiavo autopsy showed severe brain damage. It made me realize something that I've always known, but didn't really get, if you know what I'm saying: I have a very different idea of "soul" than most people.

I think that, to the vast majority of the world, the notion that people are purely physical creatures is a deeply non-intuitive notion. People are committed to the idea of soul--something that exists beyond the body and the brain, and animating force that can survive independently, and that can carry on after death. I've met many, many people who didn't identify themselves as Christian or as a member of any other religion, but were still, on a gut level, convinced there was something spiritual within them.

I've never seen the slightest shred of evidence that this is so. The fact is, if you change people's brains, you change people. Case after case shows that people with brain tumors or brain trauma can undergo tremendous personality changes. People even self-inflict short term personality changes through the use of drugs and alcohol. The pharmacopia available to alter human behavior is staggering. If we were something more than physical, how could these chemical changes to the brain have any effect?

Not to flog a dead horse on the Shiavo case, but I was listening to callers tonight on the radio and it was clear to me they embraced one central myth--Terry Schiavo was more than the shell that lingered on in that hospital bed. The fact that she was brain damaged means nothing to them--her soul hadn't been damaged, had it? It was still intact inside her, as healthy and whole as it had ever been. After all, what physical trauma could harm a soul?

I think that there is something inherently harmful in this attitude. Not that I'm a poster child for health and moderation, but the notion that people have that their bodies and thier brains aren't really them leads to a loss of respect for one's own self. Who cares if you get fat, get stoned, etc? It's just your body that you're messing with, not the real you.

Listen up, people: The body you're in? It's the only one you get. The brain you have? You won't be issued another one. Take care of them.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005


Where to begin? Last weekend, a pipe burst in my apartment. I had been fixing an outside faucet, and when I went back down to turn on the water, there was the sickening roar of water running behind the drywall in the closet. It was only a few months ago that I had a pipe burst in the same general area. The pipes through there are corroded to a crazy degree, and apparently my just touching the outdoor faucet had sent sufficient vibrations through the pipes to burst them. So, I turned off the water and went at the wall with an axe. Then, I went at the ceiling with an axe, since it turned out thats where the breach actually was. The pipe wasn't just leaking--it had actually snapped in two at one of the joints. The copper pipes were so covered in corrosion they looked like something you'd find in a cave. This was Saturday morning--Laura's plumber of choice couldn't get here until Monday. So, it was a hot, sweaty weekend. Very hot and sweaty, in fact, because, oh yeah, this was the weekend the air conditioning broke. It's still broken--her chosen AC repairman hasn't even called back yet (to be fair, she only called yesterday). And maybe he has called--because, also over the weekend, Laura's phone went on the fritz. It would ring, but when she'd pick it up the line would be dead. People calling her would get a busy signal, or dead air. She could call out, however. I tried to diagnose this by going to the phone box outside, to see if the test jack in it worked, but when I opened it: No test jack. Just an empty slot where it was supposed to be. So, about five calls to the phone company later, we do get a repairman out Monday morning. The call to let us know they are on the way. Which, huh, is funny, since the phone worked. We do several test calls. The phone is working more or less perfectly when the repairman pulls into the driveway. We have him install the outside test jack (the phone company owes you one, man, seriously) and he says the problem must have been a short in the house that "needed time to work it's way through the wires." This explanation makes, like, zero sense. A short isn't like an air-bubble working itself through a pipe.

So, it was a trying weekend. Except, it was also an excellent weekend. On Sunday we went to a swimming pool. Laura and her kids Simon and Veronica fit very nicely in my Scion. We drove around with the AC cranked high and They Might Be Giants playing loud, singing along to the "Istanbul" and "Dr. Worm." Tons of fun.

Follow up from last post: Angel Hunted is out to the critique group now. It weighed in at 15K words. YOWZA. I honestly thought my edits were trimming it, not adding 2000 words. We'll see if anyone bothers to read it--the normal word limit on the group is 7k words, but the group has been in doldrums lately, with weeks going by without a new story.

One interesting thing about the story is that it contained one of my favorite lines ever: "Use your teeth." I know that doesn't look impressive out of context. But there was a time in life when it was my motto--if you swallow anything whole you'll choke on it. Use your teeth--tear and grind at anything the world tries to shove down your throat. It's a good motto. I feel like going out and biting something right now.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Scion, Mountain Goats, More Angels

So, over the weekend I went out and bought a new (well, newish) Scion XB. These are boxy little cars by Toyota that get great gas mileage but also have a ton of room in them. Seriously, the head room in mine is the same as the headroom I had when I was driving around my Dad's Jeep Wagoneer. It's a funky, practical little car that I'm insanely happy with, except for the payments. Sigh. For most of my life, I've somehow managed to wrangle out of car payments, mainly due to driving one car, a Honda CRX, for 14 years and 240K miles. I would say that I drove the CRX into the ground, except that last I heard, it was still above ground an rolling. But a few years back in a moment of weakness I sold it. The CRX was a zombie car--still moving under it's own unholy power, but visibly decaying, and making strange groaning sounds. I tried to duplicate my CRX experience a few years back by bying a Honda Prelude. The Prelude proved to be somewhat less dependable than the CRX. I was constantly having to do repair work on it--new radiator, AC work, I had a mysterious oil leak, and then, two weekends ago, the whole car just died on me. The starter would turn, but the motor wouldn't start. It left me stranded on the roadside--something the CRX never did once in all the years I owned it. (The CRX did once leave me stranded in my own driveway, but that's a far more forgivable sin.) So, for a while I'd been thinking of trading in the Prelude. I had several cars I was considering, but the Scion was the one I really wanted. The Prelude had one last trick waiting for me, however. When I went to the mechanic to pick it up after it's latest repairs, it caught the back bumper of a truck as I was pulling out of a parking space and put an impossible to ignore dent in side of the car. (I know, I know, I shouldn't blame the car, it was my fault, technically.) So, in one careless second, I knocked at least a thousand bucks off the value of the car as a trade in. I could have repaired the car, but was told it would be $900--it just didn't seem worth the bother. The car had the stench of doom upon it. I shall not miss it.

My new Scion has lighted cupholders--a feature I mocked when I saw it on the Scion website--and a feature I didn't actually know I was buying, and don't believe I was charged for, since it isn't mentioned in the sales papers. It turns out, if you don't pay for them, lighted cupholders are the coolest damn thing on Earth.

EXCEPT: The actual coolest damn thing on Earth has to be the Sunset Tree, the newest Mountain Goats album. I've loved the Mountain Goats for years. John Darnielle has this terrific mixture of humor, rage, panic, and sweetness in his lyrics that I can't get enough of. The Sunset Tree. Available now. Check it out.

Finally: I've dug out "Angel Hunted," which may actually be the first James Maxey story. It's not the first story I wrote--probably at least two dozen were penned before it. But it is the first story where I can read it and see the writer I wanted to be finally coming out. It's a quirky little tale in which Albert Einstein gets into a fist fight with the angel Gabriel. Ears get bitten. It's a love story. The funny thing is, I don't think I ever submitted it anywhere. It was 13,000 words long, and I never felt that I had polished it to submission levels. Eventually, I just forgot about it. But I found it last week and read it and find it's flaws easily fixable. The basic guts of the story still work for me. Hopefully, working on another angel project will help get my mind tuned back into novel mode.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Cancer Treadmill

A few months back (in a post I've since deleted, since it was part of my angel story and I very ghoulishly intend to market the story), I mentioned my girlfriend Laura's cancer treatment. I said that the irony was it was possible to judge how well a cancer therapy was working by how healthy Laura felt--if she felt okay, and could leave a more or less normal life, the therapy wasn't doing much. If she felt crappy, barely able to get out of the bed in the morning, the therapy was nibbling away at tumors. If she feels healthy, the cancer feels healthy.

Since January, Laura has been on a hormonal therapy and has felt great. Great may be an exageration, but she felt normal, at least. She was actually able to go back to work, if only part time. Alas, the pattern has held true. During this time, the tumors have continued to grow.

So, now she's back on the cancer treadmill, starting today on a harsher chemotherapy. She'll be in the hospital almost 8 hours today, although future infusions will only take about 2 hours. Again, Laura isn't someone who wants to hear statistics or odds. I, of course, compulsively research them. The good news is, I've found success stories for the drug. Some people with stage four cancers like Laura's have gone into remission on the treatment. Some people also report having very few side effects, and can tolerate the treatment very well. So, there's always hope-this could be the one that breaks the pattern. This could be the chemo that zaps tumors and leaves the rest of her alone. The tough thing is that it takes months before we find out. They did a cat scan last month--but then they wait 3 months before doing another to check for results. It used to be that, when asked which one of Superman's powers I'd pick if I could have just one, I'd say flying. It was a no brainer. Now, though, damn, I'd give anything for his x-ray vision.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Eric Rudolph

Am I a nut to think that if Eric Rudolph had been a left wing environmental terrorist or an islamic terrorist who killed two people an injured dozens of others, he'd get the death penalty? In the plea agreement, the government said that one thing they got out of the plea was that Rudolph had agreed to reveal the location of explosives he had hidden. Isn't this dealing with terrorists? I have no proof, of course, that there was a political motive behind the plea--but Rudolph is a hero among some of the more radical right. Giving him the death penalty could have pissed off some of the more wacko Bush supporters.

This is setting aside, of course, the issue of whether the death penalty is ever justified. One can make a blanket case that no one, not even Osama Bin Laden, should be executed. But if you are going to have a death penalty, what crime is more deserving than to plant bombs designed to kill random people? His bombs sometimes had a two-stage component--they would explode once, then explode again a few minutes later after police and firemen had time to arrive. It's really tough to imagine a more loathsome sort of murder. The fact that Rudolf doesn't show any real remorse, and even sounds boastful at times, only adds to my feeling that this plea bargain is a bad one.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Story doldrums

So, last Saturday night I finished the latest revisions on my novel Bitterwood. Then, Sunday, yardwork, then, Monday, I started my new job at the CPC in RTP. (One day, our language will consist of nothing but initials. But I digress.) Normally, after finishing a novel, I like to use some of my creative momentum to crank out a short story. I'm planning on starting another novel very, very soon, this week, I'd hoped, and when I'm working on novels I almost never write short stories. Since I have two sales to Asimov's now, and stories in a half dozen anthologies, I'd like to have more short work to keep out there on the market. Alas, this morning, everything fizzled. Some days, you sit down, and you are on fire, the words just flow. Other mornings, the well is dry, even if you have a fairly firm idea for the story. This morning I had a setting: The Scar. I know that China Mieville has a novel called the Scar, in a setting called the Scar, and maybe I'll have to rename my setting eventually, but right now I have this image of a nearly dead planet similar to the moon, only it's been smacked by a huge comet so hard the planet has a huge crack. (Maybe I'll call it the Crack instead of the scar.) Anyway, miners have swarmed to the planet and placed a shield over the surface of the Scar. Deep down in the crack, there's easy access to a zillion heavy metal and precious minerals. In the upper levels of the scar, there's oxygen and water left over from the comet impact, so human life is possible in this warren of houses carved into the cliffsides. The downside to life in the scar is that everyone works for the mine, and if you are fired by the mine, you are essentially dead. They have no legal obligation to feed you--basically you have to turn to crime since you can't work and can't afford a ticket off the rock, and even petty theft is punishable by death. My protagonist would be one of these men who've been fired and has to find a way to survive in such a hostile environment. He's been fired because he refused to carry out an execution of someone or other, I hadn't figured this out yet. Lots of times, this is all I'll need to start a story--a setting, and a character with a problem. A first sentence will come to me and I just plow ahead, letting momentum take me to places I didn't expect. Alas, I had several attempts at that first sentence, and nothing worked. The best I came up with was, "If I stayed on Earth, I wouldn't be a murderer, a thief, or a cannibal." Oh well. Maybe tomorrow.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Hungry Edge

Sorry for the paucity of postings lately. I've been in the final crunch on my novel Bitterwood, polishing it up to prepare for submission to publishers. I've also been working on an audio magazine called The Hungry Edge. The first episode is now live. Find it at www.codexwriters.com--there's a link to the story on the main page. I'm the host, and I'm very happy to present a terrific story by Ian Creasey called "Night Shift on the Support Line." Very funny fantasy, and Ian has a terrific voice. Check it out.

The Hungry Edge

Sorry for the paucity of postings lately. I've been in the final crunch on my novel Bitterwood, polishing it up to prepare for submission to publishers. I've also been working on an audio magazine called The Hungry Edge. The first episode is now live. Find it at www.codexwriters.com--there's a link on the main page. I'm the host, and I'm very happy to present a terrific story by Ian Creasey called "Night Shift on the Support Line." Very funny fantasy, and Ian has a terrific voice. Check it out.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

A Sign of the Apocalypse

I'm not sure if anyone notice earlier this month when the world was knocked slightly further atilt on its axis. Perhaps the world didn't shake for you, but it did for me.

On March 9, I walked into my local comic book shop and canceled all my subscriptions.

Now, to the non-geeks out there in the world, this is probably not a momentous statement. But I've been reading comic books faithfull for thirty years--three quarters of my life. I've been subscribing in some format or another for over half my life. I love comics, and have accumulated an enormous heap of the things, mostly gathered in neat rows of white boxes. There is no spot in my house where it is possible to sit down and not be within arm's reach of a comic book.

Several trends brought me to this place. First and foremost was economics. Comic books routinely cost about $3 a pop now. Special issues or "event" comics like the JLA/Avengers cross-over can cost $6 or $7 each. There was a time in the early nineties where I was following close to thirty titles--doing that today would cost me over $100 a month. Story lines in comics have swollen in recent years--a story arc lasting 6 issues is routine. A year is common. And DC just started a storyline reintroducing the Seven Soldiers that they proudly tout as running for 30 issues. Reading the entire story issue by issue will cost close to $100.

Which brings me to an issue of quality. I can't prejudge the Seven Soldiers storyline, but I'm skeptical that the story truly requires 30 issues to tell. One of the things I liked about comics was that they could cram in astonishing amounts of story into a tiny space. You could pick up an issue of Superman from the 1960s, for instance, and it might involve a plot that requires Superman to visit three different planets in the span of three pages--or even three panels. Now, his journey to another planet would take an entire issue, and his visit to the planet might be dragged out over three or four additional issues. I'll be blunt: My attention span isn't that long. More and more I find myself reading comics where I realize I've forgotten why the characters are doing whatever the hell they are doing. Say that Superman has flown to Planet X because it's the only source of a miracle medicine that's going to be save Pa Kent from an alien virus. Well, by the time the story line is in its fourth or fifth month, I'll have forgotten all about poor Pa Kent. So will the writer and the artist. They are now distracted by the alien world. Two issues later, Superman gets back with the medicine and gives it to Pa almost as an afterthought, and I'll be thinking, "Pa was sick? Since when?" There just aren't that many stories that are so compelling that I'll remember the beginning if I'm reaching the end six months later. (Some stories do deserve this space, however--I promise a future post touting some of the best.)

Of course, one thing driving this trend is that comic book storylines are now routinely collected into graphic novels. 6 to 8 issues of a book is about the right length to fill a graphic novel, so storylines swell to fill this length. And, you can read the story in one sitting--I can hold on to almost any premise for an hour. The economics of graphic novels make sense too. Eight issues of an individual comic book cost about $24--a lot of the graphic novels are priced at $12.95. And, the graphic novels are convenient if you want to reread a story--there are comics I'd be interested in rereading, but it would require me digging through my endless boxes to try to reassemble all the issues of the storyline. It's a hassle. Where as the graphic novel just sits neatly on the shelf, no ads, ready to go. And, while I've never considered myself a comic collector, only a comic accumulator, graphic novels, as reprints, require no special care to maintain collectability. You can read these things in the bathtub if you are so inclined. You can break the spines. It doesn't matter--you don't have the dread that the issue you are holding is going to suddenly explode in value ten years from now and you'll have reason to rue getting the pizza sauce on the cover.

It's a very, very rare monthly comic book that still puts out a self-contained issue. Every now and then, the JSA will pull it off with a spotlight issue on a single character. The Flash has some decent single issues every now and then. Tom Strong for a long time kept adventures to a single issue, although there have been more and more multipart stories there lately. Nothing else currently published springs to mind. (I'll also do a future post about single issue epics.) The concept of one issue equalling one story is all but dead in comics. This also means that it is impossible to jump into a series. If you hear buzz that a book you aren't reading has a new artist and writer and is really good, but the story is already three or four months old, it's too late. You'll be completely lost if you pick up an issue in the middle of a storyline, and if the book is "hot," back issues will cost insane amounts. And why bother hunting out back issues? In a year, you can pick up the graphic novel for less than you'd pay for a single collectable back issue.

There have been other trends in comics that have sapped my enjoyment over the years. Too much continuity--storylines that require that you know thirty years of character history in order to make sense of them. Not enough continuity--the willingness of some writers to simply throw out everything that has come before and just start fresh, changing anything they feel like. The fact that the more I enjoy a book seems to translate rather directly into that book being in ever greater danger of cancelation. The list of books I fell in love with only to see cancelled is a long one.

I feel a sense of guilt walking away from comic books. They are a struggling art form, with an aging and declining readership. They need my money. Alas, I feel they've stopped earning it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

SF versus Fantasy Celebrity Smackdown!!!

Attended Stellarcon over the weekend and it was a blast. Lord have mercy, I done got geekiness all over me, not that I wasn't reeking of it before. Under one roof we had Klingons, pirates, ewoks, nameless, shambling, unspeakable horrors. Most surreal con moment: the discussion of Joseph Cambell's heroic archetypes as they apply to Pokemon.

The geeking climax for me was the panel I led called SF vs. Fantasy Celebrity Deathmatch. I matched up ten SF characters randomly with ten fantasy characters. We ran them through a round of bouts, then had several rounds of elimination free-for-all. Gandolf versus Superman, Thor versus Hulk, Dr. Who verus Dracula, Jar Jar Binks versus Peter Pan, and so forth. Winners were decided based on arguments presented by the audience. As a judge, I found myself having to render split second judgements--could Superman's heat vision hurt Sauron? Would Pikachu's lightning slow down Shrek? Could anyone beat Cthulhu? (Yes, actually--Captain Jack Sparrow, from Pirates of the Carribean, being already dead and insane, was the perfect foil for the great old one.) It was late at night, so my memory's getting fuzzy--did Buffy the Vampire slayer really kill Jar Jar Binks? Or was that Peter Pan who did him in? All I know is, Jar Jar never really stood a chance. In the final round, the undefeated champions were Gandolf and Dr. Who--and, despite my loyalty to the Doctor, the consensus of the mob was that Gandolf would win. As a geek at heart, I decided the only fair way to settle the matter was with a roll of the dice--and Gandolf took home the trophy. I spent the next hour or so haunted by the final round, wondering what I could have done differently to bring the Doctor to the victory I feel sure he deserved...

Man alive, the things I get worked up about.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Vomiting poet psychopath

Tomorrow's my birthday. For the last five years or so it's turned into sort of a tradition for my friend Greg and I to hit the road and travel to Cherokee, NC, where they have a casino, and, once there, do our part to recompensate the Cherokee for the awful, awful things our ancestors did to them. Also, maybe we'll win money. In which case, screw the Cherokee.

Currently, I'm actually a fair amount ahead on my lifetime winnings at Cherokee. This is because each year, I only take $100 with me to gamble with, and for the last few years I've been lucky to walk away with more than $20 of it. But, I did win a 1250 jackpot off a quarter on a trip five years ago--so I can go back for another 8 years before I'm losing money again.

These trips also involve the annual harrassment of our friend James Rice. James is somebody we went to college with many moons ago, and he is, to be blunt, insane. Not wild party animal insane, but a much more spooky and sinister, hitchhiker-chained-up-in-the-cellar insane. He's a backwoods mountain child with a history of early childhood head trauma and, somehow appropriately, a deep love of classical poetry. He works as a guard in a juvenile detention home and has scary stories to tell that will leave you forever fearful of teenage boys, if you aren't already, which you should be, trust me. And, he has a very dangerous, bizarre, and disgusting medical condition: When he laughs too hard, he vomits. Not every time, but often enough to make Greg and me flinch when we're around him. We are, it should be noted, very funny people.

The wierdest thing about James Rice, though, is that the universe seems determined to make us be friends with him. We have three James Rice encounter stories that, were they fiction, would be completely unbelievable, yet they are, I swear, true.

Chance encounter number 1: Almost ten years back, Greg was still living in Asheville. James lived in Mars Hill, about 30 miles away. I drove up to see Greg and met him downtown. They have these granite blocks lining the sidewalks downtown, and when I parallel parked, I somehow hit one of these granite blocks in such a fashion that it knocked the valve stem off my tire and gave me a flat. So, while Greg and I are fixing the flat, who should drive by and spot us but James Rice. We acknowledged this as a coincidence, and a pleasant one, since it was good to catch up with an old friend. By itself, this is an unremarkable story. These things happen.

Chance encounter number 2: So, the first coincidental encounter, no big deal. You occassionally run into people you know. But, a few years later, Greg was on the interstate in near Marion, NC, about 50 miles from Asheville. He pulled off at the rest stop there and who should he find but: James Rice, standing in the parking lot, utterly lost. James had been trying to drive to Black Mountain, NC, and had completely missed it, and had pulled off at the rest area to try to ask directions. So, this was something of a bigger coincidence, since the encounter took place far from both of their homes. Fortunately, Greg got James turned around and heading back in the right direction. It was a wierd bit of luck for James, but, again, these things happen.

Chance encounter number 3: So, the first two encounters, Greg meets James when he wasn't thinking about him. He just turned up. But, yet another time, Greg and I had both moved from Asheville. This was around the time of my first divorce, if I remember correctly, and I was heading back to Asheville to my ex-wife's house to collect some of my stuff, and Greg was along for the ride. We spent the night at a motel in Asheville. The next morning, we're up around seven in the morning, and Greg says we should call James Rice and see if he wants to get together with us for a little while that morning. The hotel charges some outrageous amount for phone calls though, so we decide to go to the mall and use the payphones there. We get to the mall and, of course, every store in it is closed. We are the only car in the parking lot. The doors are open though, and we walk inside to look for the payphones. And, in the vast main hallway, at the far end, there is a lone figure walking toward us. We walk toward him. And, when we get close enough to see who it is, it turns out to be: Elvis Presley. Wait, no, that was a typo. It's James Rice apparently acting under the commands of whatever demons drive him to show up at the mall hours before any stores open and walk around for a while until we show up. So, again, pure chance, pure coincidence, but by now, we understand a pattern has formed. We are tied to this wierd vomiting poet psycopath--the universe will not let us avoid him, not that we were trying too.

So, off we go, flinging ourselves once more into the North Carolina mountains, land of strange odds and general wierdness, hoping that this year, we'll win the big one, a jackpot that will forever change our lives, or at least payoff a credit card. And, failing that, we will settle for the smaller goal, the hope that, perhaps, this year, we will not witness vomiting.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Good-bye, Hunter.

I can't say I'm shocked to learn that Hunter S. Thompson has taken his own life. If one tenth of the stuff in his books is true, he was addicted to self-destruction for a long time now. You can't read "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and not recognize a man driven by demons. Ah, but what demons.

By chance, I re-read Fear and Loathing last week. This was probably my sixth or seventh re-read--plus, I've seen the movie a half dozen times, and used to have a seriously abridged book on tape version of the story. No matter what the format, I always, always laughed at the line, "Jesus! Did I say that? Or just think it?" When asked what my favorite novel is, I never even hesitate.

I have spent much time analyzing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, trying to figure out what makes it magic, at least to me. HST's other works never did much for me. Hell's Angels was interesting, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 72 was barely readable, Better than Sex had its moments. I always felt like Thompson was trying hard to recapture something in his later works, the mad energy that dances through FLLV, the manic depressive absurd stupid wise worldview that makes it seem perfectly logical to contemplate getting your hands on a pineal gland and taking a big bite out of it, just to see what it will do to you. The chapter "A Horrible Experience with Terribly Dangerous Drugs" resonates with me like no other words ever put on the page--and why? I've never taken drugs, illegal ones anyway. Despite the occasional joke about it, I really don't drink--I'm too cheap to go to a bar and spend $50 on booze in one sitting. I can't stand the smell of beer. I'll occasionally have a margarita or a bloody mary, but seldom more than one in a sitting. To my knowledge, I've never been legally drunk.

So, again, why? Why would a story about a man overdosing on drugs until he experiences complete mental and physical collapse strike me as so funny? Why do I identify with the character? Why do I think, "Yeah, I know how THAT feels!"

I think the closest thing to magic in this world comes through the process of creation. Whether painting, singing, building a birdhouse, writing--in the best moments you tap into something, something Thompson called "the main nerve," and you practically vibrate with the power of pulling something out of nothing. And I think Thompson was tapped in during those moments he was writing Fear and Loathing. I think he surrendered himself to the act of creation and woke up with this strange and wonderful manuscript in his hands, then spent the rest of the life trying to figure out the how and why himself. I've felt it--I've had moments when I'm writing when I vanish--the story already exists--it's simply borrowing me to bring itself into the world. And the terrible thing about these moments is how wonderful they are--and how rare. You never know when the words you are typing will catch fire, come to life, become poetry instead of mere language. If you go for a long time without one of these moments, it haunts you. You are left wondering if it will ever come again, that magic, that power.

I suspect Thompson was one of the most haunted men on Earth.

I hope I'm completely wrong about the afterlife. I hope that every religion is wrong as well. I hope that Heaven is open to anyone. I am so often wrong about so many things. Good luck, Hunter. I hope Heaven is full of typewriters when you get there.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

More Dead Ends

This was actually the start of a 45k word novella that I've never shown anyone:

Story one:

Chase was so far from normal values now that the first thought that sprang into his mind when his old friend Jazz at last showed up in his darkened bedroom was “He doesn’t know I could kill him.” And Chase could have killed him. Not that he wanted to kill Jazz. He actually felt a great deal of affection toward this former friend. But, as a matter of fact, as a simple reality as basic as “the sun rises in the east” or “two plus two equals four,” Chase could have killed Jazz before Jazz had even opened his mouth.
1. A bullet. Chase had a small pistol tucked into his waist band. Jazz was six feet away, across the bed. He couldn’t possibly miss.
2. A garrote. An obvious choice, given that he did have neighbors and some things, such as killing an old friend who has come to beg your help because you are the last person in the world he can turn to, should be kept quiet.
3. Defenistration. Just stun Jazz with a judo chop then toss him out the window. They were ten floors up.
4. Knife.
5. Pin him to the floor. Prop open his mouth. Pour in lye.
6. Hit him, and keep hitting him, and keep hitting him until his internal organs were mush.

I don't know what I was thinking. Chase is some kind of top secret CIA killing machine, Jazz is a cyberterrorist. It was just stupid.

Story two:

God created us all, with memories and everything, ten minutes ago.

This is a line all by itself in a file. I was reflecting on the arguments that some creation scientists use to explain away the apparent age of the Earth and the Universe, an argument that boils down to, basicly, God created them to look old and fool us. So I had an idea for a story where God had thrown a tantrum, destroyed the universe, then rebuilt it "in progress" ten minutes ago. And . . . that's all I ever had. No plot, no characters, nothing but the premise. Occasionally, I'll write a sentence like this and it's sort of an act of faith, that once you get to the end of the sentence, another sentence will come, then another, and another, and before you know it, you have a story. My story "Empire of Dreams and Miracles" essentially happened this way. Alas, sometimes you are just left with the one sentence.

Story three:

Zach, the vegan hillbilly hairdresser died first, during a space walk. Lance, the gay, decorated marine Captain of the expedition, had argued that the space walk served no purpose, that it added nothing to the mission.
"We had a twenty percent drop in audience last week," Betty, the producer, had explained. "You guys can't simply sit in the tin can all the way to the moon. The audience needs some action."
The footage from the space walk looked like Dullsville for the first ten minutes. Then the meteor--some theorized it was a 40 year old bolt from MIR--had caught Zach square in the middle his thigh, coming out the other side, puncturing his suit. He screamed for seven minutes while they reeled him in. Sashay, the mixed race transgendered strip artist with the forked tongue had joked that Zach would be fine, anyone who could scream like that had plenty of air.
Zach went silent as they were pressurizing the airlock. Lance was at his side in the lock, along with Tommi, the born-again blonde surfer from the American Heartland. When the pressure normalized and they pulled off Zach's helmet, there was no pulse. Tommi started CPR while Lance cut away Zach's suit. The bolt had severed an artery. Cutting the suit away proved slippery work. The camera caught the beads of sweat dripping from Lance's face. In the end, it was all for nothing. Zach had simply lost too much blood.
Tommi leaned back against the airlock door, wiped her face with a bloody hand, and cried.
Lance recited as much of the Lord's prayer as he could remember as he closed Zach's eyes.
Then he sagged against the wall, staring at the camera for a moment, before popping open a can of Real Cola and taking a deep swig.
Ratings gold.
Real Moon pulled in a 57% share that week.

I stole this idea from my friend Mr. Cavin, who envisioned a reality TV show about a journey to mars. I made the idea a little closer to home, something that could plausibly be launched in the next year or two. Seven strangers on the moon. Real World meets Lost in Space. Oh, and the whole thing is sponsored by a product known as Real Cola. Before I started typing this story, I was certain I had a golden idea, a sure-fire sell. Alas, two pages in I was bored with the characters. My plot involved them getting to the moon and being so imcompetent at food production that they eventually turn to canibalism. I might salvage the plot as a running joke in an upcoming novel--this is one of the characters favorite shows or something. But for now, it's a dead story.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Dead Ends

Sorry about the long gap in posts. Last week, I actually posted thirteen blog entries on the codexwriters blog, as part of a challenge to myself to write about thirteen angels in thirteen hours. I yanked them all down 24 hours later, chopped six angels and made a short story out of the entries called "Seven Angels."

So, in a sense, six of my angels were stillborn. Stories I started (and in some cases, finished) that will never again see light. The proportion is about right, though--I would say that about 45% of my story ideas never make it to a draft I'm willing to show anyone. I'll be all fired up and excited about them for a few hours, even a few days, but by the time I've written a few pages it all falls apart. Frequently, I'll even finish the damn things, only to realize later that they are hopeless, and no amount of tweaks or rewrites could ever save them.

Inspired by Luc Reid, who just published one of his aborted story beginnings on the Codex blog, I've decided to post some of these dead stories, or at least the opening lines. This ties in nicely with my earlier posts on ghost words. Because, in some ways, these are ghost stories--stories written but never read, or started but never finished.

On my desktop computer, I just trolled through the My Documents folder and found 13 dead stories. I know I have far more on my two laptops or hiding on old back-up CD's of my last few desktop computers. Still, even 13 seems like too many to feed you all at once. So, here are three story openings that no one ever got to read....

Story one:


1 In the R&D phase, God proactively initiated the implementation of the systems and processes that established Heaven, and its vertically integrated wholly owned subsidiary, Earth.
2 God commissioned a study of the feasibility of luminous emissions, then implemented luminous emissions.
3 God oversaw the development of Earth production systems.
4 God became the leading provider of grain and fruit solutions, vegetation-wise.
5 Animals were given the go-ahead by R&D, successfully cornering the market on meat and meat by-products.
6 God studied the balance sheet and declared Earth a win-win situation.

I went on like this at some length until Genisis 1:26, when God says to Adam, "You're fired!"

Somehow, it struck me as funny to rewrite the Bible in business-speak, but business-speak is so awful I can't quite lower myself far enough down to write it well. This is more a project for Scott Adams, I think. Godbert and Snakebert. Adam with glasses and a crew cut.

Story two:

An angry, full grown male can punch and kick his way through drywall in a couple of minutes. Locking him in the bedroom isn’t the same as locking him in a jail cell. These walls which seem so impenetrable and permanent are nothing but paper and gypsum, well suited for holding in insulation, hiding wires, and holding frames that display happy families—but they aren’t meant to hold back anger. They crumble and fail when confronted with rage.

This was from a story called "Papa Snorted Demons." It was a story of an abusive father who worked in a mine where there were demons trapped in the rocks. The miners would dig out the rocks, take them to an old witch woman in the woods, and have them ground into glowing spirits the kept in vials. They would snort the spirits in and get the strength to go back into the mines, strong as ten men, although the demons also made them mean and abusive. Alas, the story never jelled for me in a modern setting, where the father could kick through the drywall. I tried telling the story with more of a folk-tale voice, something from a the backwoods centuries ago, but it didn't hold my interest. And, after two runs at the idea, the whole thing felt too much like a dumb allegory for drug abuse. So, I let it die. No one has ever seen either version of the story.

Story three:

Look, I’m not going to step outside of this salt circle.
I know it’s strange. I know this is crazy. I know you’ve got dead people in the lobby and you need some answers.
Start jotting some of this down. You’ll never believe me unless you verify this. The first thing you’ll need to check out is this place about 40 miles east of here called Zeke’s Antiques. Down in my truck I have a sheet of paper in the dashboard with directions and a phone number. Get it and they can prove that we were there earlier today, about three in the afternoon.
Zeke’s probably isn’t in the yellow pages. I don’t know how Bud found it. It looked like it had been a barn at one time, a barn that got piled full of junk over the years until somebody, presumably Zeke, decided to put an antiques sign on it. Bud was fidgety with excitement as we pulled up to the place, but he put on his poker face once we got out of the truck. Inside, an Astroturf floor that had been laid down right over raw dirt. The place was packed with old farm tools, plows and pitchforks red with rust, the wooden handles pale gray and cracked with age. The whole place stank of cigarettes and dust.

This was another demon story. Bud is an obsessive collector and my unnamed narrator is his best friend. Bud got to thinking about the three monkeys--See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Speak No Evil. He wonders how they became so famous. He tracks back their origins, and finds that PT Barnum used to display three stuffed monkeys he'd acquired from a shrine in Japan. Bud tracks down the shrine in Japan, and discovers that the Three Monkeys were the avatars of some hideous monkey demon god who was the embodiment of pure evil. (No one is ever the embodiment of so-so evil.) Bud keeps hunting, and finds the PT Barnum stuffed monkey's at this antique shop. Later, he pulls away the hands and finds emeralds in the eye sockets of See No Evil. Rubies in the ears of Hear no Evil. A diamond in the mouth of Speak No Evil.

Bud then is compelled to jam the gems into various facial orifices and becomes the horrible monkey god. I never quite figured out what comes next, which was it's fatal flaw. I felt like I had a decent beginning and middle, but never could come up with an ending that wasn't tiresome. So, Bud's a demon monkey god now. The story could end there, but so what? Then its just a tiresome old horror story where the adventurer tampers with forces beyond his ken and winds up unleashing evil on the world. Ho hum. Or, it could end with nameless best friend besting the evil monkey god and saving Bud. But, again, ho hum. I never thought of the punchline or twist that would make the story worth telling.

Okay, I said three, but I'll give you a bonus. I have on my computer a file with the name "Dead Mimes. " I opened it. It read, in total:

dead mimes
promoting website
suddenly rich

Well, I'm sure it was a good idea at the time....

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Seven More Angels

Solethiel, angel of sensible shoes.

Raznagoth, angel of power lines.

Abrazel, angel of of highways.

Volilov, angel of mirrors.

Yynynyn, angel of internet chat rooms.

Murdnorion, angel of headaches.

Chalbaziel, angel of making old men feel useful.

Seven Angels

Zaviel, angel of the whirlwind.

Curaniel, angel of Monday.

Akriel, angel of barrenness.

Zalbesael, angel of the rainy season.

Yaasriel, angel of pencils.

Abalidoth, angel of sexuality.

Jeduthan, angel of howling.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Disturbing news

The most disturbing story of the week has to be the widely published report that fidgeting can help lose weight. The conclusions don't disturb me--I think it's swell that you can lose weight by wiggling your toes and scratching your nose more often. What's disturbing is that researchers measured the fidgeting of the test subjects using what has been described as sensor-laden, high-tech underwear that recorded all movements and downloaded the data into a computer each day.


It has come to this.

Thousands of years of technology has brought us underwear capable of spying on us. Orwell is spinning in his grave. At least, that's what his boxers tell us.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Lucifer takes the fall

In my last post, I talked about "ghost words," words that entered the dictionary by mistake. There is a very common ghost word that became well established in our language--a ghost name, to be more accurate.

Almost everyone has heard of Lucifer, and knows him to be one of the fallen angels, indeed, the leader of the fallen angels, as famously portrayed in Milton's "Paradise Lost."

Lately, I've been doing research into angels and fallen angels, in preparation for a new novel. The novel will be using a Biblical mythology--it's set in a universe very like our own, only it really was created in seven days about five thousand years ago. Angels and devils play major roles in the plot, as the Judgment Day draws ever nearer. One thing that confused me about the Biblical fallen angels was the identity of the devil. Was the devil Lucifer, or Satan, or were they actually the same character?

Lucifer appears only once in the Bible. His name is variously translated as Lucifer or Morningstar, and is identified with the planet Venus. The relevant passage is Isaiah 14:12. "How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, that didst lay low the nations!" Yet, in context, it is plain that Lucifer isn't a name, it's a title. The author is addressing Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. It's like referring to Louis XIV as the Sun King--Isaiah is saying that Nebuchadnezzar is riding pretty high and mighty right now, the brightest star in they sky, but that being up that high is only setting him up for a bigger fall.

St. Jerome, translating Isaiah from Hebrew to Latin in the 4th century, made the choice to use the word Lucifer, meaning "Light Bringer", and not long after, Lucifer began to seep into Christian mythology as a fallen angel. By the time that Milton wrote "Paradise Lost," it was well established that Lucifer was the devil--all due to a simple misreading.

So, Lucifer as a fallen angel stands out as a "ghost word" that made it big--a mistake that caught on, eventually taking on more life than its literal meaning of Venus or metaphorical meaning of Nebuchadnezzar. The chief fallen angel of popular culture not only didn't rebel against God, he didn't even exist!

I was building up to a joke about Lucifer being the ultimate fall guy, but now it no longer strikes me as funny.

So. Never mind.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Ghost Words

I have just stumbled across the concept of "ghost words." There are two definitions I've found floating around on the internet. The first, most common definition of a ghost word is of a word that is found in a dictionary as a result of a mistake, persisting for many years and many different editions as dictionary editors copy from one another. The example I found on Snopes.com was the strange history of the word "dord." Dord appeared for a while in Websters with the definition of "density." Of course, no one has ever used to word "dord" to mean density, or to mean anything else, for that matter. The word slipped in as a mistaken reading of a note card. In scientific equations, density is sometimes represented as "d" or "D." So, the compilers had a note card that read, "D or d / density." A little sloppy handwriting, some shoddy proofreading, and poof, a new word was born, a word never spoken or written.

A second use of ghost word refers to the word roots that are common in our language, words that only exist when they are modified. For instance, we can retain, detain, attain, and contain, but tain by itself is meaningless. Some people are ruthless, some are feckless, but nobody ever possesses the presumably noble qualities of "ruth" or "feck." Since feckless means weak or ineffective, I deduce (reduce, conduce) that feck would mean strong. So, right-wingers might proudly proclaim, "Since George Bush became President, America has been fecked like it's never been fecked before." Lovely. I'm certain there's an actual dictionary term for these root words other than "ghost words," but my BA in English is twenty years old at this point, and the warranty has expired.

I find the concept of ghost words to be haunting, especially in regards to the first definition. The idea of an unwanted and unneeded word stirs something in my writer's soul. What a sad and lonely fate for a word, to sprout briefly in the forest of words, only to be plowed back under. I plan to keep my eyes wide open for them now, in hopes that I might find and nurture one into full flower.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005


The current issue of the SF and Fantasy Workshop newsletter has an interview by Hildy Silverman with editor John Ordover. Ordover is currently editor-in-chief of Phobos, and was formerly executive editor of the Star Trek fiction line for Pocket Books. It's an interesting interview on a number of points, talking about common mistakes writers make that get their manuscripts rejected within the first fifty pages, or even on the first page. Buried within the article, though, is this question: "When should a writer fight for his ideas and when should he relent?" Ordover answers: "Ideas are the least important part of a novel or story - the execution is the most important thing."

This is a pretty provocative statement. Ordover then goes on to give the example of Moby Dick, where he describes the driving idea as a "sea captain who is pissed off because a whale ate his foot." "Idea" is, I admit, a fuzzy word. If a layman asks an author, "Where do you get your ideas?" they typically mean, "How did you think up the premise of the story?" It's possible that Ordover is answering on the assumption that "idea" means "premise." But I'm not sure why an author would fight for a premise--it seems more like the sort of thing that is either accepted or rejected. Usually, if you change the premise, you change the entire story. The ideas of the story that an author would fight for seem to me to be the themes and opinions they've woven into the story. They are the big questions about life the author is hoping to answer, or at least ask artfully, through the work.

First, let me concede that, from a publisher and editors standpoint, when it comes to "big question" ideas, Ordover's probably right. A publishing house can take an existing property like Star Trek and crank out a dozen books a year by different authors and the ideas within the books don't influence sales. You very rarely run into people who say, "I read the latest Star Trek novel and it changed the way I look at the world. Ever since reading it, I've really been thinking about the way I live my own life." The selling points to these books are the formulas--settings people already love, featuring characters they already know, following plotlines that always return the major characters and settings back to the status quo. Perhaps some major character will change in some small way--Spock or Data may understand just a tiny bit more what it means to be human. Of course, come the next story, they've forgotten the lesson, but that's beside the point. From a pure money making point of view, ideas aren't terribly important. They are, at best, just another commodity that helps promote a book, and, at worst, annoying distractions that turn authors into pain-in-the-ass prima donas.

So, ideas aren't really important from the business side of publishing. Are they important to writers? Again, from a business perspective, probably not. There are very few authors who build careers around idea-driven books. Most rely on craftsmanship and formula to create satisfying reads. You don't read Stephen King looking for ideas or opinions that will expand your world-view. You read him because he's an expert craftsman with a proven track record of building stories with engaging characters, settings, and plots. This isn't a slam against King, or against the authors who write Star Trek novels, or against Ordover. After all, I'm a comic book junkie. Comic books are some of the most formulaic literature on the planet. I don't read them looking for ideas that are going to change my world view. I read them for entertainment, and feel I get my money's worth. Learning to write within formulas that sell is actually a remarkable artistic achievement. When I think about comic book authors, I'm astonished that anyone can write a story that always fits perfectly into the allotted 22 pages, month after month on an unforgiving deadline. To me, it demonstrates a mastery of an artistic form, the way a poet might master the form of a sonnet. The same can be said of TV sitcoms, or mystery novels, or romance novels, or any of a thousand other popular forms of writing that are looked down upon by literary snobs.

Still, there is something ironic about the Ordover's choice of Moby Dick as an example of why ideas aren't important. I would argue that Moby Dick is a perfect example of a story that endures because of the ideas within its pages, rather than simply because of its execution. We read the story 150 years after Melville penned it because of what the novel tells us about life's struggles, about doomed causes, about nature. Despite Moby Dick's skin color, this isn't a novel with set in a simple black and white world. Ahab is driven by such dark forces that he surrenders his soul, baptizing a harpoon in blood and devoting it to the devil. He pursues the whale with blind obsession and doesn't care who dies in his quest. Yet when the boy Pippin falls from a boat and loses his mind while drifting for hours in the vast, infinite ocean, Ahab shows great compassion and personally cares for the boy. Ahab is in pursuit of something greater than himself, and in the pursuit he becomes a greater force than those who surround him. The novel does have a virtuous character--Ahab's first mate, Starbucks. Starbucks is a devout Christian who provides the only voice of opposition to Ahab--yet, in the end, Starbucks, too vanishes into the sea. Virtuous or vile, pure or corrupt, no man is great enough to survive the inevitable collision with Moby Dick.

Perhaps I have a soft spot for doomed men who will sacrifice everything in blind pursuit of the unobtainable. I'm chasing after a career in writing fiction--a difficult goal that has led many men to a bad end on the rocks of financial disaster. But, deeper down, beyond chasing the career, I'm chasing something more. I'm chasing my own Moby Dick. I'm chasing after a book that will endure for centuries, a book that can change the world, or at least help explain the world. I want my ideas to still be debated long after I'm gone. This is the dream that keeps me coming back to the keyboard, time and time again. The pursuit not of immediate success, but of lasting greatness.

One final note. While writing this blog entry, I pulled up an internet article on Moby Dick to refresh my memory on character names. I didn't trust my memory that the boy who fell into the sea was named Pippin. I was paranoid that my pop-culture saturated brain was sneaking in the British kid from South Park. While looking through the list of characters in Moby Dick, I note that the description of the first mate Starbuck contains these observations: "Starbuck is alone among the crew in objecting to Ahab's quest, declaring it madness to want revenge on an animal that lacks the capacity to understand such human concepts. Starbuck's Coffee is named after him."

Perhaps this is the way of all things. A great novel is written, and its eventual lasting legacy is a kudzu-like chain of coffee-shops. There's probably an idea for a novel there somewhere....