Monday, September 20, 2010

Reading, Publishing, and Writing?

Back again after another long blogging hiatus, with my first post since April. Once we decided to go forward with publishing The Worlds of Philip José Farmer 1: Protean Dimensions, the time I could spend reading dropped considerably. The time I could spend blogging about reading, disappeared entirely.

Since April I have managed to read a few books: Divine Invasions: The Life of Philip K. Dick, three or four books about editing and copy-editing, Nowhere Near Milkwood, The Percolated Stars, At the Molehills of Madness, The New Universal Book of Infamy, and The Postmodern Mariner (all by Rhys Hughes) and I'm probably forgetting a few others. I'm currently reading Engelbrecht Again (by Hughes) and the collection Before they were Giants.

So that covers reading and publishing, but what about writing? Back on May 30th, John Scalzi announced a fan-fiction contest which I decided to enter. Nope, I didn't win. But you can read my entry below. Much more importantly you can read the stories that did win, and stories by some big name talent, all trying to do the same thing; describe just what the hell is going on in that painting. And all the proceeds from purchasing this e-chapbook go to the Lupus Alliance of America. See, I told it was more important.

The following is a work of fan fiction. Characters and other trademarks in this story are Copyright of their respective owners.

The Assignment
by Michael Croteau

“...politicians, military leaders, captains of industry, professional other words, egomaniacs. Your assignment is to choose a figure who changed the course of history through the force of their personality, and prove your contention.”
Major Robert H. Heinrich stood tall and erect at the front of the auditorium scanning the sea of sophomore cadets in front of him. “Now, to make this more interesting—” this announcement was greeted with not-quite-silent groans, “choose someone unfamiliar to me, prove they had a significant impact on their society, and you’ll receive ten bonus points. The subject I deem the most obscure, while still meeting the criteria of this assignment, will receive twenty bonus points.” There were no groans now, as the class was beginning to find this interesting.

“Conversely,” he interrupted their thoughts, “if you choose someone as obvious as a ruler of a world power, or any Klingon ranked General or higher, I’ll deduct ten points. Oh, and I’ll warn you now, if I have to read one more report about Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, or Sara Palin, I will deduct fifty points.

“Class dismissed.”

As the other students filed out, Wesley Crusher remained in his seat already accessing his terminal. He decided to skip lunch as there was someone tickling the back of his mind. After an hour of sifting through his research from a prior assignment—a study of wars of the Palin era ironically—he finally found the man he was looking for. While history well remembers Athena Scalzi, the second female president of the United States of America, it has mostly forgotten her father’s meteoric political career.

“How’s it going Crusher, obtained your target already?” his squad mate, Joshua, asked.

Wesley held up a hand, gesturing to wait, while he finished reading. He shook his head, frowning. “Yes, I have a subject, and a good shot at that twenty point bonus, but studying him is confusing. This guy, John Scalzi, used to write a lot, a ridiculous amount in fact. However, after more than 350 years, the original meaning is lost because the frame of reference is so dated. Things I first assume are serious, were sarcastic humor, and articles which are so funny I can hardly read them, after some research, are revealed as true stories.”

“Like what?” Joshua asked.

Wesley consulted his terminal. “Ok, here is an article—one of many—he wrote about domestic felines. He claims that everyone he knows who owns a cat is a happy, fairly well adjusted person. At that time, there were tens of thousands of unwanted animals killed every year. So, after outlining all the societal benefits, his solution was to pass a law forcing people to adopt cats.”

“Wait, I thought you said he was a writer, how was he trying to pass a law?”

“Well, this is where it get’s interesting. He started out as a writer and was fairly successful. Then in 2010 he ran for president of his writers’ organization.”

“Really? There was an organization just for writers? What did they do, decide how spell new words?”

“Actually, I have no idea what this organization did. During his year as president, he stopped writing fiction. But, his daily output of rants, published electronically, increased significantly. Typically 3,000 to 5,000 words a day.” Will said.

“In the midst of this, he managed a hostile takeover of his publisher, a company called Subterranean Press. They stopped publishing fiction and just printed a couple volumes a month of his non-fiction. These were very expensive limited edition books, but they went out of business in a year. Then he got into politics. He quickly climbed from mayor, to his state House of Representatives, to the US Senate. Once in Washington, he made a name for himself as the most vocal opponent of President Palin. He parlayed that into a Presidential bid in 2016.”

“Ok, so far so good,” Joshua said, “so how come I’ve never heard of him?”

“He liked to campaign where video would show an enthusiastic crowd, so he only appeared at science fiction, comic book, computer and electronic shows. He would go on stage with musicians and sing humorous songs about his political ideas. When he finally participated in a debate with the other candidates in his party, he unveiled a painting of the other four sitting around a table playing strip poker. Instead of chips, there were various sexual toys on the table. Apparently, the fact that none of the four ever sued him, shows that he did his research. But he lost the debate. He couldn’t stay on topic, or keep from singing.

“He lost the first primary. He came in sixth out of five candidates. Apparently a dead rock star received more votes than he did. Then he quit. He resigned his seat, went back home, and never left his house again. Years later he was diagnosed with Cozerotic Megalomania. Similar to syphilitic dementia, it causes delusions of grandeur. There were very few cases because so few people drank the beverage that caused it, in the extreme quantities, he did.”

“Ok, so how do you make a case that he had influence?” Joshua asked.

“His daughter of course.” Wesley said, “He dedicated the rest of his life to her political career. There was even a rumor they had devices implanted in their skulls so they could communicate by thought.”

“Your dad’s thoughts in your head? That’s more than a little creepy.” Joshua said.

“True. But she was an unbeatable debater. My problem is that Heinrich is going to poke holes in my paper if I can’t get a better understanding of his writing.”

“So why don’t you interview him?” Joshua asked.

“What, how?”

“The holodeck can compile all the archived data and calculate the most probable responses to your queries. It’s not perfect of course, but pretty close.”

“Sorry Cadet, the holodeck is booked through the end of the month.” The grinning clerk, who didn’t look the least bit sorry, told him. “Let me guess, you have a history report due for Heinrich.”

“Yes Sir. How did you know?”

“He always assigns his ‘obscure historical figure’ reports when he knows the deck is booked.”

“What about after hours? I can come back late at night if have to.” Wesley asked, desperation seeping into his voice.

The clerk shook his head, then replied, “There are no after hours. The deck runs twenty-four seven. The only way you could get in there would be to volunteer for one of the experimental sessions.” Seeing the encouraged look on Wesley’s face he quickly added, “But believe me kid, it wouldn’t do you any good. It certainly wouldn’t help you with your report.”

“I don’t have a choice, where do I sign up?”

Joshua let out a long low whistle as Wesley relayed his plan. “I don’t know Crusher, I’ve heard some strange things about professor Rocker. They say he’s spent more time in ‘deep space’ than anyone else...without ever leaving his office.”

The following morning Wesley reported to the office of mathematics professor Rudy Rocker, hoping to participate in an experiment that would allow him access to the holodeck.

“So tell me young man, the nature of simulation you wish to run.” Professor Rocker asked.

“I need to interview an historical figure, a writer and politician named John Scalzi.” Wesley answered.

“Is there much written about him, any video footage?”

“Yes Sir, very much. There are several million words he wrote himself, mostly non-fiction, although it can sometimes be hard to tell, that’s why I need to interview him.”

“Excellent! Millions of words written by the subject himself, I believe this could make a most interesting test case. Are you familiar with the nature of my experiments?” Rocker asked.

“Actually, no Sir. I made inquiries but no one understood it well enough to explain.”

“Well, I feel that the problem with the holodeck is the simulations are too correct. If six different people said they wanted to witness the assassination of Julius Caesar, they would all see the same exact program. The extraneous details and peripheral oddities are the depth that is needed to make the holodeck more realistic. These qualities, which I like to call ‘randomness’ and ‘weirdness’ make the universe interesting, don’t you think?”

“I suppose so, but I think—”

“Trust me,” the professor interrupted. “Ok, I will allow you to assist me in my next experiment. Transfer the data you have amassed and I should be ready for you in a couple of days.”

Four days later Wesley was scheduled to run his simulation.

"Ah, Cadet Crusher, I am just finalizing the parameters of our experiment. The amount of data, archived video footage, and personal recorded opinions of Mr. Scalzi required three days to process. He was quite the publicity addict, wasn’t he? With the excess of information, we are setting all variables to their maximum values. It will be an extreme experiment, as these levels are approximately four times higher than any other simulation to date.” Professor Rocker excitedly explained to Wesley as they approached the entrance to the holodeck.

“What sort of abnormalities should I expect professor?”

“It is not possible to expect what has been programmed to be unexpected,” mused Rocker with a faraway look. Turning his attention back to Wesley, he continued, “however, I can give you an example. One subject wanted to box Theodore Roosevelt and found himself in a mud pit grappling with the former President . That was the random segment, the weird portion was they were both clothed in women’s bathing attire and they...well never mind, best not to worry you.

“Since your subject did not leave his home for the second half of his life, that is where you will meet him. Shall we begin?”

Wesley stepped into the middle of the room, data recorder in hand. The next thing he knew he was falling against a black velvet sky, then details of his surroundings assaulted him, faster than he could assimilate them; the recorder was gone, replaced by a long heavy spear; his other hand held a leather strap; which was the harness of the unicorn he was riding; which was flying he realized as heavy wings beat out to his sides; a loud “merrrowww” brought home that his steed was in fact a cat; looking down he noticed more strangeness, his shirt bore an evil looking alien visage; his pants were gone, he was in his underwear and he could see gray hair on his legs. As both arms were already growing weary he had a sudden realization; he was old! Just then the pegasus unicorn kitten dove, plunging towards the ground and Wesley screamed in terror.

Below him was yet another surprise, he saw John Scalzi standing on his front porch. Only it wasn’t Scalzi, and not quite a front porch. A greenish brute with Scalzi’s face, wearing armor and wielding an axe, was raging on the cave’s ledge, yelling something. As Wesley swooped down closer he could just make out the words.

“Stop thief! That’s my cat!” the Scalz-orc wailed, “Fluuuuffffyyyy!”

Suddenly the room was bright and empty and Wesley was still standing. The doors opened and Professor Rocker ran in. “As soon as I saw what you were experiencing, I shut it down. My, that was weird, was it not? It will take me the some time to study the feedback. Thank you for your participation. I’m sorry you weren’t able to learn anything today.”

Wesley looked a little shell shocked, but light dawned in his eyes. “I did learn one thing today.”

“Really, in those few seconds, what did you learn?” the professor asked in astonishment.

“How to pronounce G-h-l-a-g-h-g-h-e-e.”

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Where to start reading Philip José Farmer

Judging by the ascending sales rank at amazon for the new Tor edition of Riverworld (an omnibus of To Your Scattered Bodies Go and The Fabulous Riverboat, the first two books in Philip José Farmer's Riverworld series), excitement is growing for the new Riverworld miniseries coming soon on Syfy.

While Riverworld is Farmer's best known series, last week I chose to reread The Maker of Universes, the first novel in what is arguably his best series: The World of Tiers. Maker is a grand adventure tale in the Edgar Rice Burroughs tradition but which also shows off Farmer's inventiveness. An immortal race of Lords create their own "pocket universes" which contain creatures, and even physical laws, different than in our own. These Lords have lost the knowledge to create their advanced technology and simply use the tools they still have. They have grown isolated and decadent and now their biggest thrill is trying to kill each other off.

However, the most interesting character in the book, who becomes the protagonist from the third book on in the series, is not a Lord, but a thorn in many of their sides; Paul Janus Finnegan, also known as Kickaha. Picture a Tarzan-like character with a wicked sense of humor. One who, if he doesn't have time to take a few women while raiding an enemy's camp, will at least pause long enough to pee in their stew pot.

Philip José Farmer has described Paul Janus Finnegan (note the initials) as having characteristics he wish he possessed himself. While Peter Jarius Frigate, from the Riverworld series, behaves much more as Phil himself does.

As a rule I don't care for Book Club books, but the SFBC World of Tiers omnibus collections published in the 1980s were my—and many others—introduction to Farmer. They are one good place to start reading him.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril

As I mentioned in my previous blog, I finished two books last week. The other was The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril by Paul Malmont. I thought I knew what to expect going into this book, and from the reviews and word of mouth I had high expectations. This book exceeded them on all fronts.

First, for some twisted reason, I love reading about writers. My favorite books by Isaac Asimov, of which I've probably read a hundred, are his autobiographies. Often my favorite part of anthologies and short story collections are the introductions giving you some of the story behind the story. I even love reading about writers in fiction. One of my favorite scenes in a P.G. Wodehouse novel goes something like: Aunt Dalia called. Though Nero Wolfe was about to have Archie call Inspector Cramer to bring everyone to his office so he could reveal the killer, I had to put the book down and go to her. (That's from memory and so no where near as good as the original). And don't even get me started on Philip José Farmer's fictional author period.

So, I knew going in the book was about Lester Dent and Walter Gibson, with L. Ron Hubbard and H.P. Lovecraft thrown in as well. But many other authors appear, including several science fiction writers (I won't say who as one of them is a surprise). So Paul did a wonderful job peopling the book. But where it really surprised me was the adventure itself. Just like in the pulps the book celebrates, the action builds and builds and keeps coming at you, one surprise after another. This is the part of the book that really went way beyond my expectations.

I'm definitely looking forward to reading his second book, Jack London in Paradise, and perhaps a sequel to Chinatown sometime down the road.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Journeys Beyond Advice

I've been so busy lately I've had almost no time for blogging. I finished two books last week and this is my first chance to talk about them, and I only have time for one. Maybe I'll get to the other one tonight.

One of the keys to enjoying fiction is the "willing suspension of disbelief," and Rhys Hughes is its poster child.

Journeys Beyond Advice is, fittingly, a collection of stories about people going on journeys. Bad ideas all of them. If you found yourself in the any of the protagonists' shoes, you'd take them off and run like hell in the other direction.

In almost all these stories, and much of Rhys' work, you read them as a spectator. You don't identify with the character and see the story through their eyes, or if you do, you don't for long. There is no agonizing over why the character made a decision you would not have made, because you would have made the decision not to be in the story in the first place!

One of these days maybe I'll come up with another word or phrase to describe Rhys' writing, but for now I have to stick with surreal. Here are a few highlights from the collection:

One of my favorite stories is the longest in the book, "The World Beyond the Stairwell." It is an epistolary story made up of journal entries, letters, a radio interview and even a manuscript outline sent to a publisher. Somewhat uncharacteristically it starts out like a "normal"--perhaps a little gothic--story. A man visits his friend's home out in the country, the friend isn't there but has left him a simple task; climb a stairway and block the door at the top. Of course the stairway is longer than he can imagine, longer than you can image. No really, even longer than that. And things happen on the stairway to make him change his quest and well, it doesn't really read like a "normal" story anymore.

"The Swine Taster," was a hoot, but no thank you, I don't think I'll try the Voluntary Ape Pie.

"The Semi-Precious Isle," has a couple of meta-fictional twists in it, I don't want to say more and give anything away.

"The Herb Garden of Earthly Delights," is one of several stories by Rhys I've read that make me think he's probably backpacked across Europe a few times. But that's the middle of the story, the really cool parts are the beginning and the end.

"The Singularity Spectres," is what I consider to be a typical Rhys Hughes story. A character in an impossible situation, believing ridiculous premises, taking an unfathomable journey. Full of humor, surprises, double crosses. Lots of fun, but don't take my word for it, you can read it here. Just click on the "Download this ebook" pdf link.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Book Signings: a good habit to start young

I took my son Jordan and his friend Andrew, both eight years old, to a book signing today. Yup, Anne Rice was in town...just kidding! Actually I took them to the always awesome, Little Shop of Stories in downtown Decatur. We didn't go for Mary Pope Osborne on Thursday but we did pick up a few of her signed Magic Tree House books while we were there. We went Saturday for the Origami Yoda Event! Did we yes.

Tom Angleberger has written a book titled, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda. Not only did he read from the book (funny stuff), and show us all how to make our own Origami Yoda, but he also did fun things like challenge kids named Larry to try and snatch balls away from him while he was juggling.

He also did a great job with the signing, talking to the kids, and inscribing the books, "may the folds be with you," and drawing a picture of Yoda. The kids had a blast and I think Tom did too.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Time Masters by Wilson Tucker

I can't quite put my finger on what it is I like so much about Wilson Tucker's science fiction novels. There is, almost always, something about the protagonist you instantly connect with. Even when this character isn't an ordinary Joe, there is enough familiarity in their behavior that you have no problem seeing the world through their eyes.

Perhaps Tucker's strength is simply that he does everything well; he tells a good story, with good pacing, natural dialog, believable characters, and doesn't seem to make a misstep. He is definitely one of the most under appreciated writers of his era.

The Time Masters isn't one of his more popular books; like The Year of the Quiet Sun and The Lincoln Hunters. However, with the exception of The Long Loud Silence, it is my favorite novel of his so far. I enjoy a book that mixes some history in with the fiction, and The Time Masters does that very well.

I have a few more Tuckers on the shelf to read: Resurrection Days, Time:X, Ice & Iron and the suspense novel This Witch. But next up is The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril by Paul Malmont.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Brain Candy

As expected, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Kinky Friedman's, 'Scuse Me While I Whip This Out. I finished it about 48 hours after bringing it home from the Library, but I have not had time to blog since then. So I'm already half way through the book that took it's place in the downstairs reading room, The Time Masters by Wilson Tucker. But more on that later.

Since I already returned 'Scuse Me to the library I can't quote from it, but I can give you a clear and vivid picture of just how good it is. It's so good; I actually enjoyed the (many) parts of it that talked about country music. Kinky is probably the only author in the world who could get me to read about country music. And like it. (Kind of like Bill Simmons my favorite sports writer at He's so entertaining I'll even read his columns about basketball.)

I went to a Kinky Friedman book signing in Atlanta once. I had a plan. When it was my turn, I would ask him if he read any science fiction. If he said yes, I would ask him if he read Philip José Farmer. If he said yes again, I would give him a couple of copies of Farmerphile and ask if he'd write an article for the magazine. It would be great, a real coup to get someone so far outside of scifi, and I knew it would be great, a really funny article.

When I finally got to the head of the line I asked him the first question, he replied, "Nah, I don't read that stuff."

Oh well, proof that he isn't perfect anyway.