Archive for February, 2020

The Point of Smoking Lizard

Posted: February 12, 2020 in Uncategorized

Smoking Lizard is EVERYWHERE! I do columns here on this blog that are a mix of my personal adventures concerning a subject and pieces that will help others interested in that subject. At the moment, I really only like five things…WRITING (and the supporting READING): Behold! I give you the Scribbler’s Saga column. I will relate parts of my life as a writer, provide a review of properties I’ve read and tools I’ve tested, post essays about writing and hopefully interview other writers.Additionally, when I just need to fill my cyberspace with actual writing, whether short one-shots or small pieces of the greater whole: Author’s Assortment.MUSIC: I’ve been talking big about composing music for a decent while now. As I figure out how to fish or cut bait in this area, you, Dear Reader, will read all about it in the Composer’s Counterpoint column. Posts may include my Woody Allen-esque frustration with thinking I’m better at music than I am, reviews of music, tools and the presently rare live shows. Again, part of the mission is to interview other musicians.TABLETOP RPGS: Yes, I play Dungeons & Dragons. Yes, I can go on for hours about the time I played a thief that hot-prowled the villain’s house and walked out with a suit of armor. But, that was a long time ago. It’s time to make new stories. It’s time to see if I can create adventures other players want to play. As with the other columns the content of the Dungeoneer’s Diary, will mix the personal and journalistic.ILLUSTRATION and VISUAL ARTS: While I myself don’t draw, I do okay with a camera and certain apps. The Imager’s Impression column will probably be less frequently advanced, but will discuss my appreciation of pictures and the people who make them. And when I make more images with my script kid tools, the results will go here.MOVIES: Yeah, I thought I would skip writing about movies. Start laughing now. So anyway if I’m bloviating about movies, it  goes here in the Filmgoer’s Flamethrower.There will be times when columns will cross over, because working on a fun dungeon will spark a novel idea that may cause me to pull out the harmonica…Lastly, if you came to the site for my older content click on one of the many pages that will provide links to nearby archive sites. Happy Reading.

Plato’s Stepchildren – why we sometimes hide in Metaphor

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

Jeanine Cummins…what a mess! The politics of the American Dirt situation will largely take care of themselves elsewhere. There is one possible future remedy for other similar books (in this case the book is irrevocably the book, as it should be)…do the Science Fiction version. And that we can discuss here.

Let That be Your Last Battlefield – six weeks later, a possible respite from the hate mail….

As much as we would like to hear about every author fighting for their books in every circumstance, we do still need readers. The eternal balancing act between vision and the audience. In that regard, Science Fiction as a genre has a long history of acting like the safety valve for all kinds of stories Larger Society deems too radioactive. And the next book with lofty intentions like this could come out as SF and likely escape notice.

Far Beyond the Stars – Sorry, Benny, the issue isn’t in the rearview, yet…

Why? First off, there’s all kinds of real bias against the genre. To my limited knowledge awaiting final video proof, Oprah has never in her thirty years as Queen of TV used her book club platform to promote a real Science Fiction property that wasn’t made huge elsewhere. Oprah doesn’t have to promote anything she doesn’t like and in a classic case of confirmation bias will design her show and empire initially to attract viewers with similar views as herself. And to do the best she can to broaden her appeal by sending out professionals to do market surveys.

If we assume that Oprah is the sort of woman put off by the rockets, lasers, ships, lightsabers and really huge explosions common to the genre, then it follows that enough of her viewers and readers react the same way. Certainly, we’re describing my mother who never really got my enjoyment of the genre. What this means is that people who do mainstream novels need Oprah for their anointing and the rest of us need to figure how to land about a tenth the money and wait years, if ever, for the movie deal.

There are other factors determining how Science Fiction became one of publishing’s more interesting redheaded stepchildren. Originally marketed to boys, the genre gave them what they wanted which was the ships, rockets, lasers, lightsabers and explosions. I’m hearing St. Paul in First Corinthians – “when I was a child I thought and spake as a child, but when I became a man, I put aside childish things” – in the oddity of how my favorite books that didn’t have spies in them were suddenly derided as being for children.

Here’s what we learned from classic Science Fiction while getting called geeks. Environmental concerns? Phillip Wylie pretty much played out every nightmare scenario in one book called The End of the Dream. Reactors boil rivers. Other rivers catch fire (I’m guessing inspired by that real-world time when the Ohio River ignited near Cleveland). Carbon monoxide inversion events pretty much wipe out Manhattan. You get the idea…a spectacular book, especially when your first experience of it is the book on tape.

And we pair this with Harry Harrison taking a break from The Stainless Steel Rat to give us Make Room! Make Room! later filmed as Soylent Green. The author may have underestimated the planetary ecosystem’s ability to house and feed humans asserting 300 million Americans would be too much, but the thesis of what happens when we reach that breaking point is still worth reading.

Or I could talk about learning about Libertarianism and some nonstandard family relationships from Robert Heinlein. Generally, you might read Frederick Pohl as a Liberal antidote to Heinlein. Certainly, you have to read The Cool War for Pohl’s two-point takedown of the CIA and as a thematic counterpoint to, say, Starship Troopers.

All of this was and is possible because when you deride the genre as juvenile or low culture, no one cares. A related phenomenon is that with all situations being deemed imaginary and relying heavily on metaphor instead of coming out and directly stating a controversial opinion the easily offended can be brushed off saying – “relax, it’s just Science Fiction.”

Before going into how this would play out for the imaginary SF version of American Dirt, let’s discuss how three episodes of Star Trek handled the depiction of racism (diagonally related to the current issues). Some used metaphor. Others went straight at it to varying degrees of success getting in under the radar.

We start with the TOS episode “Plato’s Stepchildren.” One of the photos for this post shows why the episode was and is important. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) kissed Kirk (William Shatner) onscreen at the end of 1968. Predictably directly addressing the issue with what is now deemed the second ever interracial kiss on English speaking TV (a BBC show asserts having done it six months earlier) caused a lot of people to lose their shit.

The hate mail flowed in from the South. The supporting mail from everywhere else also landed heavy. Nichelle Nichols has since then continuously retold her favorite piece of hate mail from that time. A gent from the South wrote in leading with I don’t approve, but then finishing with, if I may paraphrase, “but, Uhura’s hot!” John Sayles expressed a similar amusement in his movie Lone Star – “what a wonderful thing it is that it sometimes takes one prejudice to combat another.”

Exactly six weeks later in the dreaded and much derided TOS Third Season (fans love to bash the season about like we also like bashing Star Wars: Phantom Menace, tips for fitting in FYI), we got a more metaphorical approach to – “Hey, racism is bad and stupid to boot.” The TOS episode “Let That be Your Last Battlefield.” Again, the photo says everything.

No one then or now was ever fooled that The Five-Year Mission had suddenly changed tack. People are smarter than we look. The beauty of an episode about two guys who are both black and white at the same time fighting to the death because they have nothing else left is all metaphor. Heavy reliance on metaphor is a hallmark of Science Fiction and if that same southern gent was as equally pissed off by the follow up, History doesn’t record him writing a second hate letter. I like to think that he told himself that the second anti-racism episode in six weeks was all imaginary and he would wake up from the dream in due course.

Lastly, we come to my favorite regular hour of Star Trek, a DS-9 episode “Far Beyond the Stars.” Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) is whisked away by his later revealed cousins and other relatives among the Bajoran Wormhole People, aka the Prophets, to 1950’s New York. He takes the place of Benny, a science fiction writer at a pulp magazine tasked with writing the story of the space station.

When Benny gets his ass beat by two cops played by the actors normally playing the series villains, we learn that in 1999 the franchise clearly believes that the coast is clear. We don’t have to use metaphor to discuss racism instead just choosing to tell a story about the issue. Times had changed so it seemed.

As for how writing an SF novel helps the next American Dirt. First off, the author doesn’t have to worry about the main part of the backlash that might leave only Oprah standing if it breaks gloomy. Once it becomes SF, the story ceases to be about Hispanics and Anglos and a border described as tragic all around.

Sure, the people who piously police our books saying variations of – “this protagonist doesn’t reflect any of my immigrant relatives.” – or – “this author purports to want to humanize us, but relies on every stereotype about Hispanics that we’re tired of.” – are going to know immediately what Ms. Cummins is trying to say. But, the reply will always be – “yes, but replacing Hispanics with ________s allows the author the wiggle room to get X, Y and Z wrong about everything because the story is now about how two fictional societies with similar economic and cultural disparities interact across the short interstellar distances between the planets.”

The shift into SF also allows the protagonist to remain as is. According to the liner notes (I’ll get back to you when I read the book, possibly when the dust settles), the woman owns a record store and comes from a socioeconomic class that wouldn’t normally go across the border. She makes the mistake of flirting with the wrong cartel drug lord while her husband writes unflattering journalism about him, which results in a mass family wipe out at a quinceañera. I recognized this character archetype immediately.

This woman shares thematic space with every Disney princess that must be driven into the forest and seek protection from the Dwarves or be raised in secret by the Fairies to protect her from Maleficient. Or you could bring up Mark Twain’s Prince and the Pauper where a fictional Edward VI switches places with a pauper lookalike, losing status to regain it and become a better king. And I’ll give you a coin toss between the Biblical Book of Job or Alexandre Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo as the last example of the protagonist that starts out comfortable and loses everything in order to gain more at the end of the story.

It becomes obvious that the detractors may be right according to one point of view, a woman that has more in common with Snow White really won’t reflect their cousins. By design. However, Ms. Cummins isn’t just writing to reveal the immigration situation from a point of view of things as they are.

She’s also trying to get people that look a whole lot like me to ease up and be nicer because normal people don’t cross dangerous borders on the merest of whims. Therefore, it makes sense to subconsciously tap into a more fairytale character archetype of the person whom we don’t expect to cross the border. Why? Because the thousand-year-old storytelling tradition I saw immediately because I do know how to read has always worked in the past.

In hindsight, this is where the imaginary SF version helps out. When the story ceases to be about Hispanics and Anglos, the detractors might just go with it because the fairytale princess escaping Planet Y for greener and safer pastures on Planet X makes for a potentially great story (It still could suck, we’ll see). Could Ms. Cummins have shifted gears learning from past blowups, though? Hard to say.

I’ve pretty much buried the lead here because there are a few skills that Ms. Cummins hasn’t had to practice. Worldbuilding, for instance. The two planets or nearby star systems with such disparate economics have to be thought out, named and put onto the page in order to disguise and prevent offense. Let’s see that means Planet________ has just recovered from Social Ill_______ and her people jealously eye the perceived wealth of nearby Planet_________.

For your information, the underlines are more about a failure of imagination than sensitivity, the names initially proposed read like Roald Dahl taking someone’s piss on a hangover day. If I had to actually write it, I’d come up with something…I always do. My point, I do worldbuilding every day and I still might draw blanks at first. What could Ms. Cummins do, coming new to the genre? Basically, you write like you read in so many ways.

There you have it, how it might’ve worked if American Dirt had been reworked as Science Fiction somewhere in the middle of the process. Less sales. No Oprah, unless I’m wrong. No presold film deal. And no one cares, unless Ms. Cummins really trips over her shoelaces trying SF when it doesn’t come naturally to her. All for a story that slips under the radar to influence people in unexpected ways, which sometimes just has to do.

As for what good SF races sound like, especially Roald Dahl at the top of his game…VERMICIOUS KNIDS! Enjoy that mic drop and have a good evening.

A familiar scene leading to…

© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

“No idea completely survives first contact with the page.”

…this and away we go!

With the usual paraphrase apologies to Helmut von Moltke the Elder, ideas seem sometimes a slippery as the war plans discussed by the Prussian Field Marshal. I’ll give a few examples.

There I am in my favorite comic book store on a Sunday when my friend behind the counter isn’t still in shock over a destroyed engine (long story). For this day’s session, the conversation turns to all things Star Wars. My friend expresses his ticked off that many customers seem to think he should be first in line for Episode 9 and then the related tangents spiral outwards…

Somewhere in the discussion of many related things in Star Wars-Land the destruction of, count ‘em, two Death Stars before the dreaded Galactic Empire even gets to strut around intimidating poor hapless planets into accepting an entirely extractive governing arrangement is asserted to represent total financial disaster. Segments of this nerd fight can include death claims on the part of the families of technicians housed on the Death Star. Mike Myers generally covered this in outtakes from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery – “Where’s Smitty? Ever since he took that new job at Dr. Evil’s secret base, we haven’t seen him. Oh, really, the base was just reported destroyed? That’s so sad! Let’s raise one for Smitty!”

This version of the discussion gets quite involved where my friend reaches into parts of the Internet I hadn’t even thought to go. An economics blog where there lies an estimate of just the steel cost pegged at about thirteen times the current GDP of the whole planet…just the steel. Comment included the cost of cleaning up both Yavin 4 and Endor would represent costs likely to bankrupt even the EPA’s Superfund program…a few times over, I think.

It was a true conversation in the sense that the debris field segment was sparked by me saying that my since abandoned fan fiction (I knew I needed to wait out Episode 9 before continuing) involved Luke taking Rey into the Yavin 4 debris field to go on scavenger hunt for a hurting kyber crystal in need of a Jedi willing to take in what is essentially a stray shelter cat. I’m envisioning the field as the SF equivalent of the Somme Battlefield that the French Government just evacuated instead of sending in EOD.

Razor sharp fragments moving at random orbital velocities. Residual radiation from destroyed reactor piles. Jedi are supposed to undergo graduation trials; seems to me that giving your padawan a spacesuit and throwing them out the airlock in order to find a kyber crystal crying out in the Force for a warm home and saucer of milk counts…in spades. My friend reminded me that dangerous to clean up is also expensive.

There was more to the discussion, of course. The part where it almost becomes a geek fight – “would the Empire actually pay claims as an evil polity run by Sith?” The comic book store lawyering on both sides is highly entertaining and shouldn’t be missed, but I digress…

All of this mess swirls around in my head to give me my first really weird idea of the week…playfully take the piss out of the franchise by writing a script that starts with the destruction of the trademark-safe version of the Death Star. Parodies of Star Wars still play out like the original and I need a McGuffin. Tapping finger to head results in – “I got it! The hero needs to find the galactic bitcoin database that holds enough stored digital currency that will convert into the local denomination that will save the galaxy from bankruptcy!”

So far so good, quest McGuffin checked off the to do list. I start screwing around with the world building allowing me to acknowledge that few concepts happen whole cloth all at once. I thought the script would fit in well with other SF projects of mine that have a set pseudo-physics to them where it’s convenient to have humans and other sentient people spread out through several galaxies where a trick of hyperspace makes it easier to make a phone call between galaxies than to go there. It increases the threat of financial ruin, because neighboring galaxies might loan the Empire money by intergalactic wire transfer and like when the Psychlo home planet went bye-bye these loans are now – GASP! – unsecured.

Another preexisting idea, an insurance adjuster in space with a ship starting out on a planet of windswept grassy plains. Basically, Han Solo with the job of reviewing interstellar disasters and wrecks to determine how much the insurance company will pay out, part investigator and part actuary. And now we get to the first slippery idea of which there will be more as the process goes further.

Does an epic about finding the magic galactic bitcoin drive actually need an insurance adjuster as the hero? Yes, it’s a job that sort of intersects with the superficially modern concerns about international finance and the hell it must be to lose the drive with your bitcoin keys. But the story begins after the trademark-safe Death Star goes – BLAMMO!

The vile but still looks good in the union-mandated postage stamp dress Galactic Empress has already been told by her advisors, toadies and other yes-beings that pretty much all of the local insurance carriers are declaring bankruptcy and getting out of Dodge on intergalactic sleeper ships to avoid paying claims. This hypothetical hero’s work as insurance adjuster is done before the lights fade on the title scroll. I’m not saying I can’t make it work, but suddenly maybe I need a slightly different job for Han Solo…

Enter the Interstellar Business Scout. If business can be conducted at interstellar and intergalactic distances using the in-story equivalent of a long-distance phone call, someone has to go check out the opportunity first hand and report back. For example, are there really functioning spice mines on Kessel? Has anyone audited the books for said same spice mine? The skills that answer these questions are also the skills that understand how the magic bitcoin box interacts with the depleted currencies of the suddenly impoverished Imperial Galaxy. Give him/her a ship and little bit of unconventional swagger to fit with a character archetype that still has to be in the movie and I have my hero…I think.

The magic bitcoin box, second cousin to the codebreaker box from Sneakers, also tweaks the world building. In order to assume an archive of easily convertible digital currency, I chose to assume a precursor civilization that collected cash and helped create the intergalactic banking system. And suddenly when I’m ready to write the title scroll (the only thing on paper so far), I get to drop in a satirical homage to the blue words that appear before Star Wars – THIRD GALAXY TO THE LEFT. WHENEVER. – instead of – A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY AND A LONG, LONG TIME AGO.

Thinking about magic bitcoin boxes leads to this slight change in thinking, at least some of the assets that will right the ship in the Imperial Galaxy have to be physical. People are always going to be people and value physical assets. It runs contrary to my experience that a digital currency can be completely digital (why I refuse to invest in bitcoin). We might not still peg the Dollar to the gold held at Fort Knox and the New York Federal Reserve Bank, but they are still assets to borrow against. This leads to some of the data on the bitcoin box leading to untapped reserves of many different strategic minerals: lost gold mines, platinum ingots buried under the ruined structures of Coruscant…these threads are movies in of themselves.

To recap, I slightly changed my hero and my world building to fit the narrative that slowly forms in my head as I keep thinking about the Interstellar Business Scout that goes looking for a magic box with which to restore financial stability to support the fragile peace brought by the Restored Republic. Will it change further? Should I find some other character to be the insurance adjuster (Princess Leia?)?

I’m betting it will, especially since I buried a huge lead…I really want to resurrect a fan fiction script I wrote for The Return of the Jedi. But does a movie that I absolutely know trades on the dangerous treasure hunt motifs of say The Deep or Treasure Island even belong in the same neighborhood as Return of the Jedi? We shall see when I find time to write the pig.

Anyway, the point of this post is to get you to embrace the fact that ideas are slippery where pulling one thread changes X and the other thread has far reaching consequences requiring changing that really important scene in the First Act. And on and on…

I’ll close with the postscript that I’m fully away that making the movie about intergalactic finance dangerously flirts with this truth I learned from Steve Martin’s movie Bowfinger – “Write what you know…unless it’s about accounting, which is boring.” Trick of the trade Number Five, the magic bitcoin box handles all of the boring financial stuff while the characters run around the galaxy shooting trademark-safe Imperial Stormtroopers. With that, the post is over…go home!