Interview with Ken MacLeod about Iain M. Banks

Recently, I wrote about Iain M. Banks for Kirkus Reviews. In conducting the research for that post, I spoke with one of his friends, fellow SF author Ken MacLeod, who graciously agreed to answer my questions. Here's our interview.

Andrew Liptak: When did you first meet Iain Banks?

Ken MacLeod:  At Greenock High School around about 1969 or 1970. He claimed we met when I approached him to write a story for the school magazine (a story the teachers who had the last word on what went in rejected as too sweary or too gory) but I have only the vaguest recollection of the incident.

AL: Were the two of you close friends throughout High School?

KM: Not exactly. I have to be a bit tedious and specific here. There are two towns adjacent to Greenock, which is a small town on the Firth of Clyde on the West coast of Scotland. Upriver is Port Glasgow, which is where most of the maritime industry used to be, and downriver is Gourock, which was originally a resort – back in the day when steamship excursions on the Clyde were the best holidays most people could afford. Over the years the towns basically merged at the edges. Anyway, Iain's family lived in Gourock, where his father worked for the Admiralty. Iain went to Gourock High School, which only catered for students up to their third year and the exams then known as O-levels. Anyone who wanted to do the next grade of exams, Highers, which were what you needed for university entrance, had to go to Greenock High School. So Iain arrived along with several other boys and girls in our fourth year. I was already part of a clique who thought they had deep thoughts and who were considered promising by our English teacher, Joan Woods. She encouraged us to form a creative writing group or something like that. Joan was a remarkable and much loved teacher who right from the start did innovative off-curriculum things like getting the first or second-year English class to analyse Simon and Garfunkel lyrics after listening to the album, and to study poems so new that they were literally only published as duplicated handbills. Years later I amused and surprised Brian McCabe by quoting a line or two one of his early poems from memory.

Anyway – the meetings of the writers' circle began in some public room but soon became evening gatherings in Joan Woods' living-room, and they continued even after the students involved had gone on to university. Several of us remained friends with Joan for many years afterwards. At some point in his high school years Iain became part of that clique, and we became closer friends when we were both at university – he at Stirling, I at Glasgow. We had an interest in SF in common and we used to meet on Saturdays when we were both home for the weekend, go out for long walks with our pals or go round to see Joan, who put up with our antics and gave us coffee and biscuits.

AL: Can you describe a bit about what he was like in person?

KM:  He was cheerful, affable and sociable, but enjoyed solitude -- he sees to have done a lot of thinking while walking or driving. Very generous and loyal to his friends -- he made a lot of new friends in the course of his career, but remained close to the friends he already had from his schooldays, and to his family. He had remarkable equanimity -- in all the years I knew him I never saw him in a bad mood, or show more than a rare and momentary annoyance. He had a penchant for ordering and organising things: bookshelves and CDs and tools and so on, which I think went with how carefully he planned everything from his books to his schedule for the year. He had this focus and work ethic along with a capacity for recklessness, spontaneity and risk-taking -- which, now I come to think of it, was quite measured and calculated as well: he took care to endanger only himself, and he could now and then get hilariously drunk in company but never drank alone.

AL: To the best of your knowledge, how did he begin to write science fiction? 

KM: The best person to ask is David Haddock, editor of the fanzine 'The Banksonian', even though I was there at the time and he wasn't. He's done the research, asked Iain questions and correlated reminiscences from interviews and so on.

You can find his talk outline on Iain's pre-publication writing here.

However, as far as I know Iain's first extended work of fiction that was actually typed and not handwritten was 'TTR' [The Tashkent Rambler] - a huge sprawling work set that wasn't SF but was set in the (then) near future. (In the interviews with Andrew J Wilson cited below, he says that it was inspired by Catch-22 and Stand on Zanzibar.) Then after a couple of abortive novels, one of which was SF, he wrote the first draft of 'Use of Weapons'.

AL: Where did he discover science fiction, and what about genre stories attracted him to them?

KM: Probably through TV series like Thunderbirds, Dr. Who and Star Trek, then SF books in the local libraries. Like every British SF writer of our generation, he'd mention seeking out the yellow-jacketed Gollancz SF books on library shelves. He read very widely in all kinds of fiction even in high school, and gravitated towards SF by I guess his mid-to-late teens - in his final year in high school he wrote a dissertation on SF, and it had sections on 'The Escapist Stuff', 'The Hard Core', and (though I can't swear to the title of this one) 'The New Wave'. He'd read all the standard Asimov and Clarke and Heinlein and then found the New Wave - Spinrad, Ballard, Keith Roberts, M. John Harrison - with Aldiss, I guess, as the bridging figure. The 'New Worlds Quarterly' paperback series was a big influence, both the stories and the criticism, mostly by Clute and Harrison.

AL: His first book was The Wasp Factory, a non-genre story: it's not often that we see genre authors writing outside of the genre to the same regular schedule as he did: why do both? 

KM: He'd already written, sent in to publishers, and had serially rejected 'TTR', Use of Weapons, Against a Dark Background, The State of the Art, and The Player of Games. So he thought he'd try something mainstream and middle-of-the-road ... I remember him telling us he was writing a mainstream novel and sounding almost apologetic, as if we might think he was letting the side down. But I think he continued to write both literary fiction and SF because he could and also because the mainstream novels sold better.

AL: I remember reading somewhere that he wrote science fiction simply because he loved it. 

KM: Yes, that seems about right. He would say he enjoyed it slightly more than writing non-genre fiction (which is a genre in itself, one he and I sometimes labelled 'LF', 'lit-fic', or 'lie-fi').

AL: Do you recall what his reaction was like when he finally sold Consider Phlebas? Was there a sense of relief?

KM: Glee, I seem to recall. He was very pleased to have an SF novel published at last, but I don't think he ever doubted he eventually would.

AL: What inspired his Culture novels and the world he built?

KM: The way he explained it was that he wanted to write about a morally and psychologically flawed mercenary fighting on the side of a genuinely good society, and so proceeded to work out what kind of society he himself would most like to live in. When he told me about this society I told him it was communism, in the sense of the Marxian vision of a society of abundance without classes, the state, or money. He came to agree but I don't think that influenced anything that went into the Culture: he just worked it all out from first principles. I've written about this here and here.

AL: I know there’s been a number of people who have pointed to his Ringworlds as being directly borrowed from Larry Niven’s novel Ringworld. Was there a sense of ‘let’s add in everything that’s cool’ to the Culture novels?

KM: No – look at all the trad space opera cool stuff he left out! He may well have been inspired by Ringworld, but he arrived at Rings by his own route. As far as I can recall he worked out Orbitals first – he figured out how big a rotating structure would have to be to have centrifugal force of one gravity on the inner surface and a 24-hour day, quickly realised that no known material could sustain it, and handwaved in force-fields to hold it together. If you can do that you can do Rings, so he threw them into the background but I don't think there's a story specifically set on a Ring.

AL: What did Banks hope to accomplish with the Culture: where there certain things he sought to cover and examine? 

KM: His running gag was that he'd sought to capture the moral high ground of space opera for the Left. He wanted to write big-scale colourful adventures that were well written and weren't Social Darwinism Within that he explored particular topics -the themes are pretty much worn on the sleeve: there's an ongoing debate over the morality of outside intervention, for instance, and responsibility in general. But I think the themes kind of emerged from the settings and stories.

AL: What particular right-wing elements of space opera was he uncomfortable with?

KM: Basically the unimaginative projection of present-day societies into the far future, and the not exactly hidden endorsement this gives to aspects of these societies, such as imperialism and militarism as well as capitalism. He was just as sceptical of Asimov's more liberal version of that, taking suburbia to the stars. I seem to remember him saying that Dune – which he enjoyed and admired, though he derided the ending (he said something like "'History will call us wives' – come on, Frank, is that the best you can do?") was somehow absurd in postulating an interstellar humanity that wasn't just imperial but feudal. I replied that it wasn't really compatible with the materialist conception of history, which made us both laugh at such a mild and obvious demurral.

AL: Which of the Culture novels were his favorites?

KM: He always said Use of Weapons was his favourite – I think partly because it's a very strong book, but also because it's full of the joy of inventing not only the Culture but also the other worlds where the action is set, a joy that's itself shot through with his own youthful vigour and sense of discovery, and of making use of all the knowledge and experience he'd had up to that point. Beyond that it's hard to say. Look to Windward was one he was fond of, partly because of the intensity of its moral seriousness.

AL: He wrote several non-Culture SF novels. Why did he take the break in the 1990s?

KM: The break wasn't quite as big as it seems. We have to bear in mind that the sequence of writing wasn't the sequence of publication. Against a Dark Background was the second SF novel he wrote, though it was published fourth. After Consider Phlebas, he revised his three already-written and oft-rejected space operas. It may be just a matter of chance that the non-Culture one was the last of these. By this point he wanted to 'write something I could cut loose on, something that wasn't the Culture ... I'll go back to that in the next science fiction novel.' ('Lightly Seared on the Reality Grill: Conversations with Iain Menzies Banks', Andrew J Wilson, Foundation Vol 42, No 116, Winter 2012/2013, 2014). It's interesting that the next Culture novel, Excession, is a departure from all the earlier works in that the attention is much more on the Minds, we see them and other machines more often as viewpoint characters, and the Culture is brought bang up to date with nanotechnology and virtual reality and much more intimate interfaces between humans and machines than we see in the earlier work. But all that is adumbrated in Feersum Enjinn, which I think is his first real 1990s, post-cyberpunk SF novel.

AL: Did he have the same goals with those books as the Culture novels?

KM: There was the same moral sentiment, and the same exuberance of creation, but without the constraint of having to think 'Now, how would a truly good and immensely powerful society respond to this appalling situation?' Though of course one of the non-Culture novels, Transition, has in that respect a Culture analogue in the Concern.

AL: Why write outside of the series?

KM: He wanted to explore other possibilities – to set a novel with megastructures in it on Earth, in the case of Feersum Enjinn, or a universe full of aliens and empires in our own future, in The Algebraist. Also, quite simply, he came up with ideas that didn't fit the Culture universe and he didn't want to be locked into one series, however open-ended.

AL: What was the first thing from him that you read? 

KM: A pun-filled parody spy-thriller-type adventure story hand-written in a school exercise book and illustrated with montages of pictures clipped from magazines, mostly Sunday colour supplements. (A technique inspired by Terry Gilliam's graphics from Monty Python, and possibly Private Eye covers and the alternative/underground press of the time.)

AL: Can you tell me a little about the Scottish SF circle? I know that there's a solid knot of authors from there. 

KM: Well, it's more of a loose skein really - there are separate knots of fans and writers in Glasgow and in Edinburgh, and I don't know about any other local concentrations though they must exist. There's a very active fandom and writers' circle in Glasgow. In Edinburgh there is a loose circle around people who were members of the Edinburgh University SF/F society years ago, and the friends they've accumulated along the way, with Charles Stross and Andrew J Wilson as central figures. There's also an overlapping circle of writers who met through Andrew Greig, who used to live in South Queensferry and who I first met many years ago when he was writer in residence at Edinburgh University. I introduced him to Iain, and he introduced us to novelists and poets such as Ron Butlin, Regi Claire, Ian Rankin, the late Edwin Morgan, Brian McCabe, Lesley Glaister, all of whom became our friends too.

AL: Is there something about Scotland that sets you guys apart from the rest of the genre field, either politically, environmentally or otherwise?

KM: I think in most respects we're fairly typical of British SF writers. The famous Caledonian antisyzygy can be seen in my writing and in Iain's, but by and large you'd be hard put to distinguish Scottish SF from British SF as a whole. Besides - as I think it was Paul McAuley who said - there just aren't enough of us to be a statistically valid sample.

AL: Did Banks have plans for other Culture novels beyond Hydrogen Sonata? What might it have covered?

KM:  He had an idea for a novel about a character who had stored some of his memories in ammunition, so every time he used his weapon he lost part of himself. He hoped to have left enough of an outline and notes for me to write something from if he didn't have enough time left to write it himself, but sadly his illness didn't even leave time for even an outline. It was a generous idea, and typical of Iain, in that he inisted he would like me to write the novel in my own way and not in a pastiche of his, but even so I think I would have found it almost impossible.

AL: What was his writing process like, and how did he construct The Culture as a world?

KM: He read widely, thought a lot, made page after page of notes of ideas, and then when the time came to write another book he would look through his notes, extract or otherwise come up with a story idea, write a detailed outline and then sit down for two or three months and bang the thing out at a rate of about five thousand words a day. He constructed the Culture initially with a lot of drawings of ships and orbitals, weapons and drones and so on, maps of locations, lists of names ... ship names and character names, which he had a real knack for inventing or finding. There's a minor character in Against a Dark Background called Elson Roa, the leader of gang of solipsist bandits, and after I'd read it in draft Iain showed me where he'd found it: a broken street sign for the street where he lived, Nelson Road.

The Monuments Men

The Second World War is possibly one of the most studied conflicts in human history. Recent efforts in the academic and popular writing market, as well as large budget productions such as Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, coupled with the rapidly declining numbers of World War II veterans has only increased our appetite for stories from this monumental conflict, and as a result, a large number of books, television documentaries and movies have capitalized on the events of 1939 to 1945.

Robert Edsel and contributor Bret Witter have put together a monumental (no pun intended) book entitled The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History that paints a vastly different picture of the war than has been seen before. While much of the attention paid to the soldiers involved with the fighting, Edsel presents a mission that had far larger connotations: while the fighting forces were preoccupied with saving Europe and containing Nazi aggression, a small, relatively unknown group of soldiers were tasked with the almost insurmountable task of saving something far greater: the elements upon which European culture rests. The Monuments Men were the ones who would locate, preserve and document the artwork that the Nazi military stole from the countries that it conquered during the course of the Second World War.

Over the course of this book, Edsel tells the story of a small, dedicated group of individuals who, with very little support and even less authority, set out as the Allies invaded the European mainland and worked accomplish their impossible task. In doing so, he not only talks about the people who are involved with this venture, but also examines some of the crimes that the Nazis perpetrated during the war: the theft and destruction of art, using artwork as evidence of Nazi superiority (and of other races inferiority), but also the blatant disregard for the care and well being of artwork. Moreover, the lesson that is never quite forgotten over the course of the book is the casualties of war, especially amidst the destruction in Europe.

Thinking back to when I was in England in 2006, I remember hearing about some of the efforts that went into preserving some of the cultural artifacts around the country: ancient cathedrals were reinforced, stained glass windows were taken down and put away and artwork was stashed far from where they could be harmed. Other places weren't as lucky, and as Nazi Germany rolled into the rest of Europe, artwork was captured or destroyed. Edsel starts off his book quickly, looking at some of the concerns that museum officials and art professionals had as the war started, and looks at the highly public effects of the destruction of history had upon the Allies and Axis powers. A particular case in point was the Allied destruction of Monte Cassino, which helped to prompt a greater awareness of the sheer impact that heavy-handed militaries might have, and how wonton destruction of targets could be harmful in the long run, something that would impact the conduct of war later on.

While Edsel doesn't dwell for too long on anything but the Allied conquest of Europe and followup actions after the war, or just a small number of characters out of the 345 or so men involved with this unit, what he does is highly effective by bringing both the larger themes of this struggle, but also enough human faces to the table to allow any reader to relate to what was going on after the front lines passed. Most notable is George Stout, of the US Naval Reserve, who was involved early on in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives project. One of the first Monuments Men to travel into Europe, Edsel notes that he took only one or two days off during his entire time in the theater of operations, working tirelessly to document thousands of sites and items. Harry Ettlinger had fled from Germany and joined the US Army shortly after high school, becoming an important member during the operations in Europe. Captain Walker Hancock, Lieutenant James Rorimer, Captain Robert Posey, and more from the US Army make up a fascinating cast of characters, all of whom are not only written about, but do some of the writing themselves, as Edsel has included a number of their letters in the book. Beyond US Army personnel, Edsel also talks much about Rose Valland, a French woman who works tirelessly, as a volunteer at the Jeu de Paume museum and spied against the Nazi occupation to preserve the art in the museum, as well as Jacques Jaujard, the director of the French National Museums. Edsel takes only a small number of interesting figures that were involved, but just enough to ensure that the book isn't bogged down with an endless number of figures. Those who are represented are facinating, with a diverse number of backgrounds, all brought together by this extrordinary task.

These characters, while most never interact with one another, save for occasional mission, are intertwined with the Nazi plans for artwork as the war turned in the Allies favor, and Edsel pieces together the actions of this diverse group to show just what happened in Europe during the war. As the fighting passed over Europe, the Monuments Men were never very far behind, working to examine and to guide restoration and continuing preservation. At times, they helped to redirect Allied war efforts to better preserve sites, created lists of buildings that should be avoided and worked hard to locate missing works of art. Other times, they would document the damage, or rush in to try and locate a valuable statue that watched the fighting move past. Edsel traces their path through Europe, starting with Operation Overlord, and pushing through France to Paris, to Germany and Berlin between 1944 and 1945. In doing so, the reader is shown a different view of World War II than what has been largely popular: the aftermath of the fighting, when the Monuments Men largely went to work. They would task local villagers to help fix damaged structures, helped with logistical operations, would survey and document hundreds of sites, all with very little support, often with just one soldier in hundreds of square miles.

What has astounded me more, however, was not just the task that these men faced, but that their story has never fully been explored or told, as the ending of the book states. Their story was one that sat in the background, largely taken for granted and lost to the larger picture. It is a shame, because their story is possibly one of the more important, for this was what was at stake when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. The Nazi government had sought to supplant all creativity by replacing it with their own, hording everything deemed important to the state, with everything that was seen as subversive destroyed by fire. Much was lost forever, and undoubtedly, much is still unknown and lost, waiting in dark shadows to be found once again. The efforts of the Allied forces demonstrates a broadening of thinking beyond just the next objective and enemy soldiers to be killed, and that there was a recognition of the importance of culture and buildings beyond their immediate impact on the battlefield. The battlefield, in a sense, was Europe, and those in danger were those made of paint and bronze, who look back and show us a glimpse into the past, into the minds of the artists who helped to make Europe what it was.

To Geek or Not To Geek

A couple days ago, the New York Times ran a short article that cited Dr. David Anderegg as saying that the terms Geek and Nerd should be banned, in response to another article about the need for 'Cool Geeks'. This is a subject that I hold very near and dear, being a self proclaimed geek.

Like GeekDad on, I believe that the New York Times somewhat misinterpreted Dr. Anderegg's argument, although it seems that it could have been better worded. I dislike the notion of banning any type of word, and I don't believe that calling somebody 'Nerd' or 'Geek' is nearly the same level as a racial or homophobic slur. But even to that extent, the idea that words should be banned because of the connotations that surround them is one that seems misguided at best. The constitution outlines the limits of the freedom of speech, but to me, this isn't necessarily a legal argument, it's one that is governed by social convention. Any sort of slur is at the height of rude and unacceptable behavior, and it is along these lines that this should be solved, not necessarily in the courtroom.

This, I think is what the point of Dr. Anderegg, who's written a book on the subject. The first article that the New York Times ran, New Programs Aim to Lure Young Into Digital Jobs notes that "But not enough young people are embracing computing — often because they are leery of being branded nerds." And that is a perfectly valid argument. While I've noticed that geek stuff is getting cooler all the time, from the black rimmed classes to obscure things, the connotations associated with being labeled a 'geek' or a 'nerd', ones that aren't good. I've come across a number of people over the past couple of years who are shocked at my admission to being a geek, but also try to talk me out of it. "You're not a geek!" has been a pretty common thing, and however helpful the suggestion is, it does show that there is quite a bit of a problem in the public image: ie, something right out of the 1970s, at the height of uncoolness.

Benjamin Nugent, in his 2009 book American Nerd: The Story of My People, does a fantastic job in uncovering some of the root origins of the stereotype of geekiness, and to just what a nerd is. (You can read an excerpt here. Much of the stereotype is perpetuated by a couple of things: the public persona as reinforced by mainstream media, either through television shows or newscasts, and through the actions of people who are, well, nerd-like. There is no shortage of the extremely stereotypical single, slightly (or overly) overweight, unemployed guy living in his mother's basement who's playing video games because he's inept in social situations.

This is the big, underlying point that needs to be understood - it's not the words that need to be changed, it's the behavior that reinforces the need for the words that needs to be better understood, in most cases. As the first article notes, there needs to be more 'Cool Geeks" as the economy changes and advances with technology. Part of that, I think, is providing better role models, in both the media and in person. There's some good things going on, and I believe that the overall trend is changing, if slightly. Shows such as 'The Big Bang Theory', 'Dollhouse' and 'Stargate Universe' both have a number of good examples of geeks in their prime element, while the information age allows us to study things to our heart's content, whether that is science fiction, automobiles or music.

What doesn't help, I think, is the general attitude towards learning and knowledge that the country suffers from, and was embodied in the prior Presidential administration, with an attitude that a straight shooter going by his gut is far better off than someone who takes the time to study and examine a situation. This isn't necessarily a political thing at all - I see this far more as a sort of embodiment of larger, ongoing trends. However, when the current administration is headed by someone who's posed with a lightsaber and as Superman, hopefully there's something going right when it comes to this sort of thing. (Come to think of it, McCain, during his first run for president, also posed with a lightsaber.)

The problem isn't just that there's a perception that geeks aren't cool, there's just not enough geeks and nerds out there who are totally comfortable with the distinction to wear it loud and proud, to overcome that particular image. We're comfortable in our own little niches, from online sites of like-minded people and fans to social groups. One of the solutions is that we need to be out and about more with our passions - this is one reason why I absolutely love the 501st Legion - through our communities to set an example for the kids who avoid what they really like because of the negative perceptions associated with it. But there is also a larger issue of someone who's knowledgeable just doesn't seem cool, and for the life of me, I have a hard time understanding why. I often can't fathom why people go out of their way to avoid learning, escaping to a life of dull repetition that's brought on by the wires and lights in a box. More than ever, we need geeks in the world, or at least the parts that make us good. Geeks are, and will be more popular than you think.

Byron Clark: A Model Progressive

This past weekend, I attended the annual conference for the Northeast Popular Culture Association in Queens, New York, for my first presentation in an academic setting. It's something that I've been quite excited about for the past couple of months. The Byron Clark paper is one that I have been working on for several years now, off and on, and it was nice to finally get some real research done on the paper in order to present a viable argument and my findings.

Byron Clark was born in 1866 in Strafford, Vermont, and throughout much of his youth, lived in both Vermont and New Hampshire. By the age of 19, he had joined the Episcopal Methodist Church, and began travelling around the United States, from New Hampshire to Florida, to California and back into Vermont by 1893. There, he settled into the community and ingrained himself for the rest of his life in Burlington Vermont.

Clark is best known for his creation of YMCA Camp Abnaki, a boy's camp run by the YMCA and one that is still in operation to this day. On July 10th, 1901, Clark took a small group of boys and volunteers and brought them to Cedar Beach, in Charlotte, Vermont, where they camped out for two weeks, before returning. The trip was a success, and Clark repeated the excursion. Eventually, he and the YMCA made the Camp a more permanent fixture of the YMCA, by selecting North Hero as a lasting campsite. From there, Clark and camp workers began to expand the camp, installing buildings and by the time of his death, making the camp a well known and respected institution throughout the state of Vermont, and indeed the world.

Clark, is widely known to this day for his role in the founding of Camp Abnaki. While looking at his life outside of Camp, one can see that he was heavily involved in the Burlington community, and can be regarded as an example of the progressive era. Looking over a list of the organizations that he belonged to, a clearer picture of his motives and drive become apparent. Between the late 1890s and mid-1910s, Clark joined a number of different organizations, such as Vermont Society and Sons of the American Revolution, Vermont Antiquarian League, Vermont Humane Society, Order of Descendants of Colonial Governors, Vermont Anti-Saloon League, Society of the War of 1812, Society of the Army of the Potomac, Boy Scouts of America, The Green Mountain Club and several others. Each of these groups are generally aimed towards building a better community, either through recognizing one's roots, or actively working to build better people - a key part of the Progressive Era.

In Clark's instance, his motivations stemmed primarily from his faith. The Episcopal Church was part of a larger movement of progressive churches, ones that saw movement on a number of fronts, such as prohibition and education, and two fields that Clark was actively involved with. It was suggested at the conference that Clark might have been an Evangelist, given his drive to convert people in order to better themselves, which certainly seems to be something Clark advocated. Still, within the context of the times, Clark seems to be best described as a sort of progressive.

Looking at Clark's record, it's easy to see that he has left a lasting legacy of sorts through his work with Camp Abnaki. 'Help The Other Fellow', the Camp's Motto, is a mantra that in essence, sums up the Progressive era in a few short words. Over the past hundred and eight years that the Camp has been in service, hundreds of thousands of campers who have come through Abnaki's programs have been impacted by this thinking, even if they were only there for a couple of weeks. I have a feeling that it will continue to teach and inform campers in the years to come.

Education …

 has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading.
G. M. Trevelyan (1876-1962) British historian  


During my senior year of college, I took a course on Norwich University's history. Initially, I wasn't a huge fan of the idea of the course, because honestly, how intertesting is the history of one's own institution? I ended up loving the course, and wound up typing up a piece on the Norwich University students who fought at Normandy, and went to France to talk about it. 


One of the things that I really took away from the course was the school's founder, Alden Partridge, and his ideas about education. He was an incredibly patriotic man, who believed in the idea of a citizen soldier, but who also believed in a well rounded education. One of the big things that I learned was the idea of experiencial learning, and how much of the school's history was set around this style of learning. Partridge would take students out on hikes, marches, field trips, while bringing in experts on all sorts of vocations, but also making sure that his students got out of the classroom and into the field, where students could learn something hands on. 


While I majored in History at Norwich, I also minored in Geology, which I think Partridge would have liked - a mixture of sciences and arts. The Geology department at the school is absolutely fantastic, and those classes are amongst the ones that I miss the most while at the school. We took field trips - lots of them. It wasn't uncommon during some of my courses that we would get together on a weekend and end up in the middle of New York while looking at rocks along the way to see how the rock beds changed as we went further into what was a sea. More memorable, however, was the geology trips to the American southwest, where we visited and studied the Colorado Plateu and Grand Canyon. I feel that because I saw this all close up, I understand it far better than I ever could have by mere examination in a book. 


Over the past couple of months, I've gotten hooked on a webpage called Not Always Right, which features stories from people in service postitions and their odd, funny or disturbing encounters with customers. While reading these, I'm often astounded at the sheer stupidity of people featured in them, and it makes me a bit sad at just how ignorant, backward or just plain oblivious people can be, and while listening to the radio on a program about the state of education or something along those lines, the root problem to this can be solved by some of Partrige's ideas when it came to teaching - experiencial learning can help to solve some of the problems. 


I think that the biggest problem that the United States faces when it comes to educating students is that our education system is largely out of touch with how life really works. Thinking back to high school, I can narry remember a class in which I learned something useful that I apply to today. Most of my social interactions I've learned from summer camp, where I could work with people in the real world. But in school, I never really learned how exactly Shakespheare fit in with a job or anything along those lines. 


The general consensus seems to be that our education system is very out of date and needs to be revised because a lot of students aren't learning what they really need to learn. The content is there, but it seems to me that people aren't making the connection between the academic world, and how to apply things in real life. Looking back to High School and College, the best classes that I had were the ones that the teacher worked to link the class's content with real world applications. In classes such as tech, mathematics, sciences seem to have concepts that are much mroe easily applied in the real world, while classes such as history and other social sciences are a bit tricky, but it is doable. 


What the US needs to do is look to experts in the education field and to see just how kids are learning nowadays. The argument of "It worked for me" just doesn't work because the world that we live in is constantly changing - what might have worked for a politician years ago might not even apply now. 


Learning and education is the most important thing that we can spend money on - teachers shouldn't be cut back, and we need programs that help to support failing schools, rather than undercut their support when they clearly need it the most. But above that, we need to teach people how to think, reason and operate in the world once they come out of the educational system and into the real world.

Technology & Pirates

Last night, on my way home from work, I ended up listening to a couple commentators discussing the recent rise in piracy off the coast of Somalia. This has been of particular interest here in Vermont, as Captain Richard Phillips is from Underhill, and recently was returned home safely after a 5 day standoff with the pirates who took him hostage.  The article in general was examing a number of high tech ways that vessels, which generally don't like to arm their crews (for safety reasons), are adopting to fend off pirates. These items range from types of foam that can prevent someone from climbing up on a ship, water cannons, directed sound and light emitters that deafen or blind combatants, all of which have had some use in the seas already. Most of these things I remember being developed by the military for non-lethal warfare, and they seem to be pretty effective at repelling boarders, which is hoped will help to stop piracy in that region. 

I don't think that it's going to work, however. 

A short while ago, I did several reviews and an interview with Wired for War author Peter Singer, and I think that there are several parallels between this high-tech approach to taking on 21st century pirates, and our new, high tech ways to taking on insurgents in a 21st century world that Singer has outlined. Additionally, there were several points in my own studies on methods of warfare that give me some pause when it comes to new and high-tech gadgets being put into combat situations. 

On the more obvious side, technology seems to be the silver bullet for warfare. Soldiers nowadays have enormous capabilities compared to their historical predecessors. Our soldiers can fight in the dark, can shoot a person from over a mile away, can fly over a hostile combat zone from thousands of miles away, and talk to one another while fighting in a way to coordinate their movements. These advances have allowed our military personnel to be far more effective in combat, and as a result, more people come back alive than before. There is very little downside to this. 

What I fear, however, is that our military, and indeed, our society, has come to expect far more from fighting forces, and are more willing to utilize technology as a method of warfare. While covering the 2009 Colby Military Writer's symposium here at Norwich University a month ago, the panel discussion brought up the point that President Eisenhower noted in his fairwell address in 1961, warning against the rise of a military industrial complex, noting that going to war nowadays is far easier, because the personnel required is smaller, with technology being percieved as making up the difference far better than humans can. 

This has certainly been a big issue for Iraq, and numerous talks and people I've spoken with have noted that the human element to warfare is something that cannot be underestimated or eliminated. Author Alan R. King, noted that many of the problems that we had in Iraq was a failure to understand the human element within the country, with in turn cause the situation to worsen. Peter Singer also noted that a number of human rights groups have looked into the idea of utilizing unmanned drones in genocide areas, such as Sudan's Darfur, in an effort to stop the violence, and former CIA operative and author Robert Baer has noted that for all the satellites in orbit, having an operative in a room with someone is the best way to gather intelligence, because they can see, hear and feel everything that it going on, things that robotic solutions cannot do at the present moment. These 'solutions' are really not solutions. 

So, when it comes to the rise in Piracy in Somalia, technology is certainly going to deter some pirates. But, what happens when they aquire a water cannon of their own, or use goggles and ear plugs to counter the countermeasures? The same thing is happening in Iraq at the present moment with children armed with spray paint - an expensive robot is taken out of commission by a far cheaper solution. The other issue that I see with extensive countermeasures against pirates is that this could up the ante when it comes to the pirates themselves, and they have already threatened to do so following the deaths of the three pirates who took Richard Phillips the other day. Simply killing and deterring pirates at this point is a short-term solution, as we have found killing insurgents. Where there are people who have taken up arms, there will be people to follow, and the situation will escalate. 

President Obama has recently said that they will be putting a stop to the rise in piracy over there, but what exactly does that mean? Will we send in a carrier group to cover a large amount of ocean, while not addressing the underlying problem? Or will he go the route that will be unpopular and attackable by working with the remains of the Somali Government to try and control the problem through economics, which will ultimately solve the problem? The pirates are the symptom of a country in dire need of help, and working to alleviate that symptom will not bring about any sort of long term solution.

Astronauts > Ninjas

A common scene of the day: Joe on a rock. Posing.

From here on out, I'm decreeing that Zombies, Ninjas and Pirates are no longer cool, and that Astronauts, Mongolians, Vikings and Robots are taking their place as the 'cool' things to geek out about.

Let me explain.

Over the past couple of years, these three character types have become more popular than usual. Pirates, Zombies and Ninjas have long been popular with the geek crowd. Recent films and games have only thrown the fuel on the fire. At camp, there were endless debates as to whether Pirates or Ninjas were better, or who would win in a fight, and I remember at least a couple of camp-wide games that revolved around these types of characters.

A couple weeks ago, I watched one of Yatzhee's Zero Punctuation reviews for a game called Left 4 Dead, which is essentially a point and shoot at the undead, and where he says the following: "It's my observation that Zombies are second only to Pirates, Ninjas and Monkeys in the list of things nerds like and need to shut the fuck up about." After listening to that, it got me thinking - He's certainly right, but but necessarily for the reasons that he presents in the game (basically, he rants about how Zombies have been overused for just about everything.)

I've never really gotten the whole pirates vs. ninjas vs. zombies thing. Sure, they make some interesting stories, but not to the level at which they're really adored at. I think that it's easy to atribute much of the hype to films because geeks and nerds like the various films that they've been portrayed in, and like to talk about it. The endless discussions are informed by the imaginations of screenwriters, and not necessarily fact, and as a result, 90% of the discussions are pure crap in the first place, a sort of rosy-nostalgic look at what we think these things should be.

The root complaint that I have at this point is that for such an inventive, interesting and imaginative genre, there's very little actual innovation and imagination going on amongst the fan community. We obsess over pirates, ninjas and zombies because we've seen them before in films, and know all there is to know about them, reading over books like the Zombie survival handbook and Under the Black Flag if you're really into the subject.

I've seen the fan community in action - we're an incredbily handy bunch, and especially when it comes to things like costuming, there's very little that people can't do, and do it well. But, I try and think back to the various conventions that I've gone to, and wonder, when was the last time that I've seen something truely original. I've seen amazing costumes, especially from the 501st Legion that I'm a part of - and I'm not trying to disparage their work in the slightest - but everything revolves around existing media - Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, Batman, Spiderman, you name it, you go to a big convention, you'll likely see them. Even for halloween, unless you're five, you're unlikely to see any originality when it comes to costumes.

Forrest Ackerman, who recently passed away in December of 2008, was the first Science Fiction fan, appearing at the 1st World Con science fiction convention in a costume that he made himself, a sort of astronaut, essentially starting the trend of fan costuming. While I'm sure that there have been more cases of originality, I really haven't seen anything like it. I've thought to myself that it would be really fun to try and construct something new and original for a con, before I remember that I'm really not that into costuming or conventions, but should I ever have the time and inclination, it'll be something to attempt, for sure.

But this is something that falls beyond costuming - it's largely affecting the entire genre. There are two specific examples that I can think of where this is happening - Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem! and the downsizing of the science fiction sections in Borders Books.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a book that's unoriginal to its core - it takes most of the text of Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice and inserts Zombies into it. I'm not necessarily against this by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm more worried about what it stands for in the greater sceme of things - a general trend of unoriginal thinking when it comes to the genre, especially in popular circles. The big comic book giants in particular are guitly of this sort of thing, running their characters for years on end, without rest or retirement, without replenishing the ranks with new characters that might be more interesting or more relevant. This sort of thinking penetrates all levels of fandom, from the top down. Fans don't necessarily demand anything particularly original, and the production end of things doesn't seem to mind turning over the same franchises to them. And I don't blame them - much of this is a business, and this sells - keep it up, because there are good stories there. But the fan community should demand better.

Borders, last year announced that they were reducing the numbers of SF/F books that they'd have in their stores, a move that would likely hurt smaller and up and coming authors, as it put them in a catch 22 type postition - they weren't selling enough books to warrent shelf-space, but at the same time, they're not selling well because they don't have the shelfspace, at least in theory. The trent here seems to favor more of the media-tie ins that sell far better. While that works for authors who are writing media-tieins, what about the authors who want to tell their own stories?

I don't think that it's any coincidence that books that are part of a larger franchise, such as Star Wars or Star Trek do excepetionally well, and they should - there are some excellent reads out there, and I know a bunch of authors who view their works as far more than a simple paycheck (Karen Traviss, Michael A Stackpole, to name two), and it shows. But, they sell, because they contain familiar concepts, characters and ongoing storylines.

I have no issues with tie-in media, so long as it's well written. But for me, tie-in media is a form of advertising. That's fine, especially because it's generally entertaining, and features stories that are fun, but I'll always value a story that's original (and there will be those that will argue about just what originality is - in this instance, not tied in with someone else's works) over everything else, just because it's something new, a different way at looking at a story or story type. And there are good arguments here - because technically, there are only a handful of different story types - I mean, how many stories about space ships can you really expect? In a recent article that I wrote for io9, I was almost shocked to find that the main villian in most of the military science fiction stories were insectoids - Starship Troopers, Armor, Ender's Game and Alien - all used similar elements to tell their stories. But, their stories are all very different, and I always find that I get more out of them, and most other standalone SF/F novels than I do for 90% of the tie-in books that I read. You just can't compare Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to Spider-Man: Down These Mean Streets, no matter the protestations of tie-in authors, you just can't.

Sadly, this originality is something that seems to be lacking within the geek community, and we've become fans of the pre-existing. My complaint here is that Science Fiction and Fantasy has been an incredibly innovative and creative genre , and those qualities have become very far and few between when it comes to a good book or film. The imagination is still there, but the originality is not, and this is why we have the endless Zombies vs. Pirates vs. Ninja debates, I think - we just can't seem to think of anything else to geek out over. And while it's not completely original, how about Astronauts, Robots, Mongolians and Vikings? They're totally better than Zombie Ninja Pirates any day of the week.

But This Life's Work And Choice Took Far Too Long

Fanboys ends with two of the main characters, Linus and Eric, sit and talk looking on their friends as they finally make up, with the song Fair by Remy Zero playing. It's a touching end to the film, one that has seen considerable drama over the past two or so years since principle filming ended. Studio intrusions, fan boycotts, lack of advertising and other problems, and it is a relief to finally see it on the big screen.

Fanboys is the story of four Star Wars fans from high school, who, several years after they drifted apart, got back together to do a road trip cross country to Skywalker Ranch to steal a copy of The Phantom Menace. Why not just wait? Because one of the four, Linus, is suffering from cancer, and won't live to see the premiere of the film. Linus and Eric also haven't been speaking for years because they had drifted apart, and the film serves as a story of friendship and a mutual love for Star Wars. The film for most people would probably be middle of the pack - above the Adventure Movie! or whatever crap is being released by those writers, but below some of the more pinnacle comedies of similar genre, such as Superbad or something along those lines.

However, to anyone who has ever been a fan of the Star Wars movies, this will be one to see. Actually, really anyone who is a geek, nerd, dork or other so-called social outcast should find this amusing, provided you have a good sense of humor and self-deprecating attitude. Geek references are everywhere, ranging from Star Wars (duh) to things like Thunder Cats, X-Men, Star Trek, GI-Joe, Wonder Twins, any number of things that a geek in the late 90s would get. The movie is essentially a tribute to the genre and its fans, and doesn't shy away from that in the slightest. Sharp-eyed fans will have a fun time picking out a number of the cameos of celebrities (especially from the SW movies) who range from Carrie Fisher to Billy Dee Williams to Kevin Smith and William Shatner.

But this film is more than just a series of throwaway laughs as the group travels across country to get beaten up by Harry Knowles (of Ain't It Cool News - who should have been in a wheel chair), to wandering into a gay bar, smashing a statue of James Kirk (and ironically, there was a Star Trek trailer before this. Huh?) to wandering into a Star Trek convention to have William Shatner give them the plans for Skywalker Ranch. The story, once you look beyond the gags, is one that has some good themes to it - the bonds of friendship, a shared love for the Star Wars movies, but also about identity, which is something that I haven't seen a whole lot of when it comes to films like this, and it really does bring the film up a bit.

There is a perception of the geeks/nerds/fanboys out there that this film plays into, and we see them represented amongst the main characters - you have the overweight guy in need of a shower, the tall, spindly one who has trouble interacting with people, especially the opposite sex and the undersized guy who knows everything about it. To boot, you have the geek-girl who is feisty and geeky, and the geeky guy who's made efforts to distance himself from the perceptions, and is somewhat normal. The identity crisis really comes with Eric, who had gone to get a real job, and left his friends behind at their comic book store, and is blamed by Linus for this abandonment. I found this to be the most interesting part of the film in a way, because it felt the most honest. Eric has a dream where he sees his father as an Imperial, and essentially realizes that he really can't turn his back on who he really is, as he sketches comics after hours in his dad's car dealership, and while still being able to passionately argue about Luke and Leia's complicated relationship. I particularly identify with elements of all the characters, and together, they show that they are a team, a group of friends who depend upon each other, and fully embrace who they are - fanboys.

At points, I'm a little bothered by the general perception of geeks/nerds/fanboys et al, because it's an inherently unfair one, perpetrated by people who really don't understand the passion that we feel towards the genre and the specific works within it. This film, while it reinforces some of these views, goes beyond that, and tells a good story about it, one that made me laugh almost from the beginning to the end, but also brought about a number of sobering moments, such as at the end with Remy Zero's song, when the film closes without Linus. It is a bittersweet ending, and I can understand why the Weinstein company wanted to alter the cancer storyline to have something upbeat, but by keeping that aspect of the film intact, it made the film memorable, something beyond the gag film. Plus, it has Kristin Bell in a Slave Leia costume.And, the 501st Legion got a mention.

The Tragic Life of Charles Schultz

I don't go to the library nearly enough to get books - my own reading list generally precludes me from this, and any book that I really want to read, I tend to end up buying. But, every now and then, I'll see something interesting worth reading, and will pick it up on a whim. This was the case with the first authorized biography of Charles Schultz, by David Michealis, called Schultz and Peanuts, which was released late last year.

The biography is wonderfully complete and extremely detailed, spanning the famed creator of Peanuts life from beginning to end. In addition to just talking about his life, this book is a discussion of how his life impacted his creation, and shows just how much of Schultz is revealed within the classic panels that ultimately defined his life.

Schultz was born in November of 1922, and was the only child of Dena and Carl Schultz. His early childhood seemed to be one of loneliness, isolation and insecurity - all themes which would be prevalent in Peanuts. He was extremely attached to his mother, and was devastated when she died when he was twenty-one years old. It was during his early life that he began to draw, through his time in the army to a course where he began to draw small cartoons. Li'l Folks began in June of 1947, to limited success, but which would slowly grow to be an enormous multi-media platform that would lead Schultz from his humble beginnings to becoming one of the highest paid entertainers in the United States.

In addition to an examination of Schultz’s life, this book serves as a sort of literary critique of Peanuts itself. Each character is examined, their personalities and lives compared to Schultz’s and storylines are looked at within the same context. I’ve never read over the entirety of Peanuts, but this look has really given me an extremely detailed look not only at the evolution of the comic, but its inspirations and the meanings behind each panel.

What struck me the most about Schultz was the degree to which he and Peanuts were intertwined. While he denied that he utilized his own life and his children in the comic strip, it is very clear that was just not the case, intentionally or otherwise. From the start, he seemed to be destined for art, and looking back across his life, Peanuts is the only accomplishment for which he was entirely dedicated to - his purpose was singular, but perfect. The end result is a cartoon that is widely considered one of the greatest works of American art/literature, certainly one of the greatest comics, for which we owe much of our nation's character to. Ironically, I have been reading about NASA and the lunar missions recently, and Schultz's influences are felt there as well, as the Apollo 10 Lander (which was the test craft to circle and evaluate landing sites for Apollo 11, which did land on the moon) was named Snoopy and the Command Capsule was named Charlie Brown. Schultz also designed the mission patch for the first Skylab mission, featuring Snoopy and the names of the three crewmen. (My review for Homesteading Space can be found here.)

While Peanuts is a widely known work, its creator isn't - this biography allows for an unparallel look at his life. In many respects, Schultz was Charlie Brown. Throughout the book, individual strips are presented, often highlighting elements of Schultz's personality at various stages of his life. Characters are examined, picked apart and revealed through their creator to largely be an extension of his own life and personality. In a way, it is extremely fitting that not only was Peanuts not allowed to continue after his retirement, the last strip and his death occurred on the same day.

Schultz's life was not an unhappy or miserable one - it was he that was unhappy and miserable for much of his life. He was self-deprecating, a little vain and incredibly insecure - not unlike his famed creation. He seemed to suffer from many phobias, and clung to people throughout his life, all the while maintaining a mild-mannered and quiet presence. His first marriage, which lasted twenty or so years, pitted him against his wife, who was far more assertive and combative, while his second was far more mutually friendly. Ironically, for a creator known for his portrayal of children, Schultz seemed to be fairly distant from his own, leaving the raising of his family to Joyce (his first wife), who dominated the house and family.

Reading through the book, I was interested to find that there are a number of elements of Schultz's personality that match my own - to a point. I've illustrated the desire to change some aspects of this, and looking at Schultz's life, one can see the effects of his personality upon the direction of his life and the people around him.

In the end, there is no doubt that Schultz had created something wonderful, tragic and heartwarming. Peanuts is arguably one the quintessential American tales, rife with meaning throughout, something that inspired generations of people around the world for its simplicity and brilliant storytelling. This was Schultz's legacy to the world - unhappy, lonely, but enlightening.

American Nerd & Culture

Earlier today, while browsing through Slash-dot, I came across what looks to be a facinating book entitled American Nerd: The Story of My People, by Benjamin Nugent. As the title suggests, the book is about the nerd/geek culture, looking back over its history in popular culture. Checking up on the publisher's website, I found the description blurb:

Most people know a nerd when they see one but can't define just what a nerd is. American Nerd: The Story of My People gives us the history of the concept of nerdiness and of the subcultures we consider nerdy. What makes Dr. Frankenstein the archetypal nerd? Where did the modern jock come from? When and how did being a self-described nerd become trendy? As the nerd emerged, vaguely formed, in the nineteenth century, and popped up again and again in college humor journals and sketch comedy, our culture obsessed over the designation.

Mixing research and reportage with autobiography, critically acclaimed writer Benjamin Nugent embarks on a fact-finding mission of the most entertaining variety. He seeks the best definition of nerd and illuminates the common ground between nerd subcultures that might seem unrelated: high-school debate team kids and ham radio enthusiasts, medieval reenactors and pro-circuit Halo players. Why do the same people who like to work with computers also enjoy playing Dungeons & Dragons? How are those activities similar? This clever, enlightening book will appeal to the nerd (and antinerd) that lives inside all of us.

Followup poking around found some articles on NPR, On Point and the New York Times, all of which had some interesting things to say about the book, but also some of the cultural differences that help to spring this argument.

Nerds, it is explained, are a type of stereotype of a small group of any given population where logic, knowledge and to some extent, social awkwardness are the key defining features of a person. That doubtlessly doesn't need to be explained to anybody, for who can forget about that kid in High School? From what I've been able to glean, Nugent looks to a number of areas to find out where this perception comes from - literature, history, society, and from listening to a couple of interviews and similar articles, he hits the nail right on the head, and provides some really interesting examples of where this comes from.

I've long identified myself as a geek, and I'm always remembering that I had a comparatively easy time in high school. I had the glasses, social awkwardness, nose in a book and a huge interest in a lot of my school work. This isn't to say that I was a stellar student, but when I was interested in something, I went after it. For me, a defining feature of geekdom is something that a roommate of mine said in England: "I'm jealous of you - you have a real passion for what you're interested in - that's something that I don't have." Something that I've long identified with people who tend to be more geeky/nerdy is that there is an intense passion for detail with whatever interests them. In the 501st, that tends to be costuming accuracy, with some PhDs that I know, that tends towards historical accuracy, completion. Film and music nerds collect or at least know about everything that a particular artist or director releases. As the saying goes, Knowledge is power, and there's certainly good argument for that, when you have people like Bill Gates being one of the most important innovators in the world today, from the simple roots of building his own computers.

There's a whole gamut of activities that define geeks - Dungeons and Dragons, space, Science Fiction magazines, comic books, and so on. What's interesting to me here is that (as the book recognizes), geekdom and nerd culture has become much more popular in the past couple of years. I noticed it at camp when one of the classes that I taught, fantasy gaming, filled up very quickly by the same group of kids who lugged around Dungeons & Dragons, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars books and action figures wherever they went. Since then, I've noticed the same thing - geeks are 'cool' now, or at least the expected appearance of a nerd is.

To some extent, pop culture is responsible. Commercial juggernauts such as LOST, Heroes, Harry Potter, Spiderman and any number of other genre-related media items certainly haven't hurt, and most likely, have helped this subculture along nicely. The books and films can be among some of the most creative and thought provoking works out there. Indeed, on the occasions that I've been out in armor for the 501st, ridicule is overwhelmed by awe and fascination from bystanders. People are fascinated that I've put together my own armor, and the times when people make fun of me are fewer and farther between. That doesn't stop some of our members from experiencing major problems, such as assault, which does happen on occasion.

Still, I don't believe that popular culture picking up geek culture is totally responsible for its growing acceptance. Not all nerds are interested in Science Fiction and Fantasy, and its certainly not a defining feature of the group. Rather, I think that its the degree to which people like me can obsess and escape to things that are presented in science fiction and fantasy that makes the genre so appealing, as it pulls from a number of intellectual levels with made up languages, obscure sciences, literary items and practical craftsmanship.

Furthermore, I have to wonder if these traits - the desire for knowledge, social awkwardness and logic - are becoming more acceptable in and of themselves in a digital age. Certainly, geeks and nerds were at the forefront of the computer revolution because of its complexity, but from my experiences, the internet nullifies some of the barriers that make geeks more socially awkward - for this reason, it would seem, games such as Second Life or World of Warcraft are very popular (monster-slaying reasons aside) as people can vicariously live through their characters and open up a bit more without being self conscious.

Nerds are certainly here to stay, and from all indications, will become far more hip as popular culture allows, and as the traits that define us become more needed and desired, something that I can easily see happening as the internet becomes more inclusive. In the meantime, I'm going to buy that book.

Genre Fiction & Legitimacy

I came across this fantastic article by Michael Saler earlier today and read it several times while at lunch. It's entitled The Rise of Fan Fiction and Comic Book Culture. Actually, it has very little to do with fan fiction or comic books, but it does provide a good look at the perceptions of comic books and related 'genre' books out there in the world, by reviewing two books, The Ten Cent Plague by David Hajdu and Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon. I actually own The Ten Cent Plague, and I think that after I finish the book I'm currently reading, I'll start that one next. I don't have the one by Chabon, but I am a huge fan of his works. Throughout recent years, Science Fiction has been a fairly embattled genre as a whole. As Saler points out, there's a bit of a culture war that has gone on, predictably, between more traditional values and newer upstarts such as this. Hajdu's book details the craze in the 1950s that the comic book industry as a whole faced - congressional and public pressure to ban its content, due to violence and sexual content. The movement became so powerful that book burnings were commonplace and eventually, the industry sought to impose its own restrictions, which has severely limited the content that can be published in the years since. It's only been recently that comics have really broken out of their shell and begun to explore much darker themes. Still, this has created a notion that comic books are largely children's affairs, a view that is really coming up against reality, especially in the light of recent movies such as Sin City, 300 and The Dark Knight, all of which are incredibly violent, well received publically and all based on comic books.

Part of this disconnect seems to stem from a perception that various genre stories are essentially lesser components of literature, to which Chabon states: "All literature, highbrow or low, from the Aeneid onward, is fan fiction." I'm not sure that I'd make that argument, but I've heard it reiterated before, that there are only a handful of basic story types, and that everything else is simply based off of them. If that's the case, why is there still a disconnect?

I think that people just largely ignore that theory in the face of modernity and originality that recent culture and events brings about, as well as a certain amount of relevance for whatever is coming out. On top of that, I see a split between the purposes of various media types. On one hand, which would seem to be the more traditional side, there is a true creativity and design that authors put together to create some fantastic works. On the other side, a far more modern and contemporary view, is a growing trend of media and tie-in fiction (or non-fiction in some cases) that are commissioned to promote and enhance a series franchise. Star Wars and Star Trek comes readily to mind, but there are many, many others to go along with those. Almost every movie that comes out in the Sci-Fi / Fantasy / Horror genres are accompanied by a series of books, comic books, video games, action figures and all sorts of other things that tie into the story or add on to it. Star Wars is a fairly good example of how this works when it's done well - there's a strong continuity here, and it has no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Star Trek, by all reports that I've heard, is a fairly scattered series, with nothing linking everything together.

Saler brings up an interesting point: "Like Hajdu, Chabon defends mass entertainment against the accusation that it is merely a formulaic product. At times it is; yet commercial culture's focus on deadlines and profits can also act as a 'quickening force' on an artist's imagination". I think the bigger issue is that in this case, tie-in novels are essentially viewed as a product, which implies a certain shallowness as opposed to something that is more self-indulgent for an independent book.

Karen Traviss wrote a fantastic essay on the subject entitled Sprinting the Marathon , where she is very forward with her desire and appreciation of working in someone else's universe, and dismisses the notion that the books that she works on for the Star Wars (and now Gears of War) universe are any less original:

I write media tie-ins for Lucasfilm as well as my own "original" fiction, and I realize that bewilders a few people. I always slap inverted commas on the word "original"; it's a meaningless term, partly because nobody can define originality, and partly because everything — absolutely everything — has been done before. A book’s worth lies in its execution and the impact it has on the individual reader. So let’s call it creator-copyright. That’s the only hard line between the two.

On examination, my critically-acclaimed Wess’har series is as much set in a shared universe as any tie-in. It’s a world of long-established tropes like everyone else’s "serious" fiction: aliens, interstellar space flight, culture clashes, colonialism, armed conflict. Those are shared elements across SF. So why should similar shared elements in the form of continuity render a tie-in beneath contempt? You can, if you want to, take as fresh a look at that shared universe as you can your own. Lucasfilm let me question the heroic image of the Jedi and show them as a morally compromised elite who’d taken their eye off the spiritual ball. Some readers were unsettled by it. Most, though, leapt on it and said it was a question they always wanted to see asked.

That being said, I think that it has to be noted that Karen is an absolutely fantastic writer because she seems to put the same amount of effort, planning, blood, sweat and tears into all of the books that she's done, whether it's the Wess'Har Wars series or her fantastic Republic Commando series. Karen actually followed up with this idea today with this post.

I don't fault Karen for a moment for her work with LFL - she does a fantastic job at it, and her Star Wars books are among some of the better thought out and plotted novels out there, on par with some Non-genre SciFi books. One of the big distinctions to make here is that Karen is really not a common writer when it comes to Tie-in fiction. Where she lives and breathes the work, she also has a considerable amount of talent to back it up. The alternatives pale in comparison, such as Keith R.A. DeCandido, who churns out novel after novel, but from what I've read, the writing level is fairly poor and simple. The Serenity novelization follows the movie to a T, with only the slight detour to really pick on a couple characters personalities. Karen, on the other hand, has formed a fully fleshed out set of characters that far surpasses expectations of merely following a storyline that's largely already been written. Other authors that I've read, such as Peter David, falls somewhere in between there.

To some extent, I agree with Karen and all of her reasons for writing in someone else's backyard, and I hope that she's the future of this massive trend. What makes me hold back, however, is that the genre fiction section seems to also be a section for authors who are aspiring, but largely lacking in talent, to cut their teeth and to get into a cycle and create an impression on the larger literary community that this is the norm and what tie-in media will be - something based off of a concrete universe with subpar writing. Mass culture, as termed by Saler is by no means bad - it can and is quite good at times. But consequently, there is a reason for some of the perceptions of the genre. I suspect that this gets wrapped into an overarching feeling that Science Fiction, comic books, fantasy, role-playing, films, and tie-in novels are something of child's play, while the 'Real authors' get to doing serious works.

I do agree with this, to a degree. While Karen and others make a solid point that everything has already been done before, tie-in media works with a far more realized grasp. There's limitations already imposed on characters and the actions that they can take, and it seems to be extremely hard for an author to break free from this and really challenge the heroes because it will put them into unknown territories as far as most fans are concerned, and they might not like that. Thus, working with these situations is a familiar grasp, because we all know that Luke Skywalker or James Kirk won't get killed, and everything will largely be back to normal. Fortunately, at least for the Star Wars universe, this isn't always the case, as several main characters have been axed, such as Anakin Solo and Chewbacca. We know that Luke is dead at some point, and thus some of the suspense is off. Even then, fans have some very strong reactions to the deaths of favorite characters. R.A. Salvatore received death threats when he killed off Chewbacca, and I know author A.C. Crispin and Karen Traviss no longer frequents various message boards because of problems with fans there.

Additionally, any really good entries in a tie-in universe tend to be shackled to these perceptions of subpar and inferior works, which is both unfair and untrue. Shatterpoint, by Matthew Stover, proved to be a fantastic read in and of itself, because of the themes and ideas that it drew upon, including the works of Joseph Conrad. Still, this book is unlikely to be recognized as such because of the franchise title on the cover.

Original fiction, even in genres such as Science Fiction have an air of a certain legitimacy to them, because they are far more original works than something such as a tie-in novel. This may be easier or harder, depending on the author, but at times, it is refreshing to read something that's fairly new, that incorporates new ideas that might not come as readily in a tie-in world. I'd be very, very surprised to find something of the caliber of the works of Charles Stross, Neil Gaiman, Richard K. Morgan or Scott Lynch in a universe such as the Star Wars franchise because of the things that they are able to do in their own universes, but also because those universes that they create are so different and equally realized, all on their own. There has to be a certain amount of pride in the creation of one's own little world, despite some of the advantages of working in someone else's.

I don't think that there's anything inherently good or bad when it comes to genre or tie-in fiction. What really matters is the author behind the steering wheel, directing the story. If you've got a competent author, they weave in and out of traffic with ease. If they're not, they're one of the baseline reasons for the ten car pileup and bad perceptions, because everybody slows down to watch the car accident.

On Reviews

A couple fellow music blogs have posted up this, and after giving it a read over, as well as the review in question, I felt compelled to do the same. This isn't so much an attempt to defend these guys, but more to complain about how the entire environment of reviewing here is flawed.

The guys who make up the group The Airborne Toxic Event was given a 1.6 rating from the indie-music website on a recent review to which they had the following reply:

Dear Ian,

Thanks for your review of our record. It's clear that you are a good writer and it's clear that you took a lot of time giving us a thorough slagging on the site. We are fans of Pitchfork. And it's fun to slag off bands. It's like a sport -- kind of part of the deal when you decide to be in a rock band. (That review of Jet where the monkey pees in his own mouth was about the funniest piece of band-slagging we've ever seen.)

We decided a long time ago not to take reviews too seriously. For one, they tend to involve a whole lot of projection, generally saying more about the writer than the band. Sort of a musical Rorschach test. And for another, reading them makes you too damned self-conscious, like the world is looking over your shoulder when the truth is you're not a genius or a moron. You're just a person in a band.

Plus, the variation of opinions on our record has bordered on absurd. Most of what's been said has been positive, a few reviews have been on the fence and a few (such as yours) have been aggressively harsh. We tend not to put a lot of stock in this stuff, but the sheer disagreement of opinion makes for fascinating (if not a bit narcissistic) reading.

And anyway we have to admit that we found ourselves oddly flattered by your review. I mean, 1.6? That is not faint praise. That is not a humdrum slagging. That is serious fist-pounding, shoe-stomping anger. Many publications said this was among the best records of the year. You seem to think it's among the worst. That is so much better than faint praise.

You compare us to a lot of really great bands (Arcade Fire, the National, Bright Eyes, Bruce Springsteen) and even if your intention was to cut us down, you end up describing us as: "lyrically moody, musically sumptuous and dramatic." One is left only to conclude that you m ust think those things are bad.

We love indie rock and we know full well that Pitchfork doesn't so much critique bands as critique a band's ability to match a certain indie rock aesthetic. We don't match it. It's true that the events described in these songs really happened. It's true we wrote about them in ways that make us look bad. (Sometimes in life you are the hero, and sometimes, you are the limp-dicked cuckold. Sometimes your screaming about your worst fears, your most trite jealousies. Such is life.) It's also true that the record isn't ironic or quirky or fey or disinterested or buried beneath mountains of guitar noodling.

As writers, we admire your tenacity and commitment to your tone (even though you do go too far with your assumptions about us). You're wrong about our intentions, you're wrong about how this band came together, you don't seem to get the storytelling or the catharsis or the humor in the songs, and you clearly have some misconceptions about who we are as a band and who we are as people.

But it also seems to have very little to do with us. Much of your piece reads less like a record review and more like a diatribe against a set of ill-considered and borderline offensive preconceptions about Los Angeles. Los Angeles has an extremely vibrant blogging community, Silver Lake is a very close-knit scene of bands. We're one of them. We cut our teeth at Spaceland and the Echo and have nothing to do with whatever wayward ideas you have about the Sunset Strip. That's just bad journalism.

But that is the nature of this sort of thing. It's always based on incomplete information. Pitchfork has slagged many, many bands we admire (Dr. Dog, the Flaming Lips, Silversun Pickups, Cold War Kids, Black Kids, Bright Eyes [ironic, no?] just to name a few), so now we're among them. Great.

This band was borne of some very very dark days and the truth is that there is something exciting about just being part of this kind of thing. There's this long history of dialog between bands and writers, NME ripping apart the Cure or Rolling Stone refusing to write about Led Zeppelin -- so it's a bit of a thrill that you have such a20strong opinion about us.

We hear you live in Los Angeles. We'd love for you to come to a show sometime and see what we're doing with these lyrically moody and dramatic songs. We're serious about this stuff. You seem like a true believer when it comes to music and writing so we honestly think we can't be too far apart. In any case, it would make for a good story.

all our best--

Mikel, Steven, Anna, Daren, Noah the Airborne Toxic Event

You can read the review in question here.

This brings up some of the personal gripes that I have with the big website, and with the entire indie-music scene in general. I've found it to be dominated entirely by people trying to be cool, hipsters, on top of the latest trends simply to set themselves apart from 'The Mainstream'. I personally think that it's shallow and vain, not to mention just a bit arrogant.

That about sums up my views of Pitchfork - there are a number of writers on there who seem to have good writing skills, but a sort of complex that makes them feel entitled about their opinions when it comes to music. I can't say that I've listened to The Airborne Toxic Event before, but I certainly don't think that they deserve a really low score on the album - I've heard a lot of other albums that are worse.

When it comes down to it, music is about enjoyment, and the guys who wrote the letter hit the nail on the head - reviews are just one person's review and opinions of any given thing. I don't give credence to very many other reviews, but there are a couple that I do listen to, and those are generally the ones that make logical sense and aren't out to try and make too much of a point or have an agenda. When they drop names like the Arcade Fire and Bright Eyes into every other review, I have to wonder just what Pitchfork is trying to say - To me, it seems like we just get a string of reviews that say Arcade Fire and Bright Eyes still rock. Well, great, but we read the first notice, thanks. Fanboy worship is pathetic - either they're still trying to get on first name basis with the band members, or they just can't get over the fact that they don't like any other music. Essentially, they don't seem to be an objective reviewer.

This leads me to my second gripe here - for all the appearances of a hipster indie person, rejecting the evil mainstream, it's just a crock. They're following, like sheep, a second mainstream that Pitchfork and other like minded blogs and sites/reviewers create. There's numerous instances of how postive reviews have made an album, while low reviews have essentially broken them. I have no issues with good or bad reviews, but for an environment that seems to promote standoffish and independence, it's a hypocritical and vain one at best. Don't forget, that we're all part of the big commercial cog here. There's a reason why a lot of these blogs are on publicists e-mail lists - we help sell a product, making us part of the mainstream.

I think Zero Punctuation says it best when it comes to reviews with their Mailbag showdown. "I don't believe that a complex opinion can be represented numerically", although he has a lot of good points in the feature.

When I write a review, it's my thoughts. I honestly don't care what other people think about my review, and I generally don't care what other people think about any given group in question. I don't do this to preen and pretend to be someone who knows more about music than the general public, I'd like to think that I have about average music tastes, and use this to highlight bands that I enjoy listening to. You can have a band that sounds very unique, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to sound any good while doing it. I don't even really have a huge issue with Pitchfork or the indie kids who think that they're cool. I'll just continue to ignore them and go on with my life.

This goes for things other than music as well. Over the past couple of years, I've largely gotten rid of the fanboy mentality that I had when it comes to books and movies, and I've sought to become far more objective and critical with my reviews and commentary on things. During high school and early college, anything with the word STAR WARS on the front cover was pretty sure to get high marks from me simply for those two words. Essentially, I was reinforcing the fact that I liked the original movies. Since then, I've gone back and rethought a lot of things, and while I still enjoy a number of the books, I can admit that they're not that great. Since then, I've watched and read things with a far more critical eye, and one where I'm not as easily lulled into succuming to peer pressure when it comes to liking various products. I'm still an unabashed Science Fiction fanboy, but I'll be critical of the genre and its contents when I need to be. Same goes for just about every other movie that I watch, book I read and song that I listen to.

Anyway, that's my rant about all this.