Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Great Pumpkin's War

Last night they showed It's The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown on tv. I've watched the special most years since I was a kid (sometimes I have no idea when it's on and I miss it.) There's a weird interlude in the middle where Snoopy, as a WWI flying ace, has a dogfight and goes down behind enemy lines. He creeps through ruined farmhouses and down the trenches, and it's a five minute tour of some very basic World War I imagery.

It's a strange historic artifact preserved in an evergreen children's cartoon special. Charles Schulz was born in 1922 and grew up in the shadow of the Great War; a goodly amount of the adult men he knew would have fought in the war, and everyone would have known all about it. Forty four years after Schulz was born, when the Great Pumpkin was being made, he put those memories and stories into the special, and now they're probably the only way most people ever interact with the War to End All Wars.

It's been almost fifty years now that the Great Pumpkin has been failing to appear for Linus, that Charlie Brown has been getting only rocks in his sack, that Violet has been throwing a Halloween party for all the kids. And still Snoopy is fighting that war that was over long before the Peanuts strip was created, and still kids see it and must wonder what exactly it's all about. I suppose they wondered the same thing even back in 1966, and maybe their grandparents would explain to them. Such a strange thing to be transmitted through history in such a strange venue.

By the by, it's my choice for favorite Peanuts special; although I like A Charlie Brown Christmas, it's not as good as the Great Pumpkin.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Games!

Since I'm not currently working on writing a novel or anything (boo!) because my agents are shopping around the new one starting this week (yay!) and I don't want to work on the sequel to a book that's going to mutated out of all proportion by edits (ugh!) I am instead devoting some time to one of the passions of my life.

I'm a gamer. Not a video gamer (I do not have good hand/eye coordination, and in the moment, I usually just forget what particular buttons do: very little muscle memory, I guess?). Instead, my preferred games usually occur around a table, with either a board and cards and figures of some sort, or with books and dice and pencils. I've been at it a while (since I was a wee sprog of about 7 or so, which was 5 dog years ago, and you can do your own math) and still love to play games of all sorts.

Now I'm actually starting to work on a game. Well, several, but mainly one: a tabletop roleplaying game I'm calling Bronze & Bone, a game of adventure in an Ancient Greece overrun by the dead. It's pretty fun, designing a game. I will admit I've tried before, several times, with no particular success: a thing called Rats Among The Gods about humans living in alien spaceships as vast as moons; a thing called Lif's Children about what happens after Ragnarok. I tried to play those a couple times, got frustrated, stopped. I may go back to them at some point, since I really like the concepts. But right now, it's all about mythical/pre-classical Greece (almost the same thing), and figuring out what works and doesn't. I'm getting a lot of help from various folks over at rpg.net, which is a cool place for gamers and has the bonus advantage of being firmly moderated so it doesn't turn into a cesspool. 

Currently I'm fussing over the systems for the game: how many dice to use at a given time, how easy it is to succeed, how combat works, stuff like that. The setting I feel pretty good about, and what I've done with it, but there's still a good bit of work to be done as far as those danged rules. It's a bit of a slog, but it's getting much, much better with every time I open the document.

It's a lot of fun. If I ever finish the thing, I'm going to just make it available for free (because it's even harder to make money as a tabletop game designer than it is as an author) and start on another. Third try, maybe I can actually put it up for sale, but that's not for a while. So now, back to it.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

I didn't really need it anyway...

I had my appendix out a few days ago. One of those things that happens quite suddenly. I woke up with stomach pains, discovered they were worse in the lower right quadrant (that's where your appendix lives, by the by) and twelve hours later was missing one completely non-vital organ. The surgery was quick and easy, the recovery is going by very fast (I had a work shift scheduled today but decided against it as I think I'm not quite up to snuff just yet, but I'm close) and there's not much in the way of pain or discomfort in the general run of the mill wandering about the house and such portions of life. I'm not really supposed to lift much (for a week or two, maybe? Or three days? Or I can lift whatever I want? Every health care person in the hospital told me something different) but otherwise, it's good.

So here's me, missing my first organ. Well, I can't really say I miss it. It was trying to kill me, after all.

Anyway, back to recovering (for which read: wandering the internet.)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Moving to the Country, Going to Eat a lot of Peaches

Well, I didn't actually move to the country, it just sort of feels like it.

Until two weeks ago, I had (for four years) lived in a neighborhood of Seattle called Capitol Hill. It got that name a century and change ago, when Washington Territory was changing into a state and they had to pick a a state capitol (as you do) and Seattle, being the biggest, bestest city in the Territory, thought it should get the nod. Seattle thought that so strongly that it picked a place for the government buildings, gave it a name, and then one day woke up to find out that the rest of the Territory kind of hated Seattle (and still kind of does) and had decided on a muddy little town called Olympia for the domes and legislatures and all that sort of thing. So there was just a hill, still mostly wooded, with a new name: Capitol Hill.

Anyway, flash forward about 125 years, and it's a trendy, urban destination, formerly beloved of car dealerships, then of gentrifying homosexuals, then of tattooed band sorts, nowadays of hipsters with kids. It's also very full of people, bars, limited parking, the homeless, junkies, construction sites, street festivals and all the fun that comes of being a popular place.

After four years, The Husband and I hated it there. You can only find a random, different-every-day dude camped out behind your building so many times in a week before you start to not want to be there. So we decided to move. But we don't have a ton of income, and so our choices were, we thought, kind of limited.

Seattle has a strange little appendage, kind of the Staten Island of the city: a leftover of older times, a portion of the metropolis that time has slightly forgotten, as if its name was on the tip of time's tongue but not quite there. That's West Seattle, which is across the river from the rest of the city. I actually grew up in West Seattle, and it was a strange experience, because it really is like a Hollywood small town that just happens to be within a big city's limits. It's changed some (there's construction here, too: Seattle is all about growth), but in essence, it remains small and quiet. Not all that small; there's about 60000 people in West Seattle, give or take a few. But it feels small, because all the major services are across the bridges, in the city proper. West Seattle has its little urban areas: the Alaska Junction is nice, for instance, four blocks or so of shops and restaurants, bars and services. But it's four dense blocks and then it's done. For the rest, it's a lot of single family homes on huge lots that, on Capitol Hill (where there are single family homes, if you're quite wealthy) would have held three or four houses. Apartment buildings dot the scenery, but they're mostly smaller, six or twelve or twenty units. People say "Hello" and ask how you're doing when you pass them in stores; the streets get very quiet at night.

I can't say yet what the total impact will be of moving to a quiet place like we have, but I can say this right away: I am vastly less stressed. My shoulders don't tense up automatically when I go outside. I'm less cranky and angry. It's amazing what a change of setting can do for you, and I wouldn't have believed it could be such a big deal if it hadn't just happened to me. I have to unlearn some things, probably: I'm too closed off because of being in a place of constant agitation; I don't smile or say hello to random passerby because they didn't do so to me, and often they were exceptionally sketchy creatures. And I don't yet trust that I can do what it's clear I can do, which is just assume that in general nothing bad will happen if I turn away from my satchel for three seconds; that no one will just steal anything I leave lying around unattended for so much as an eyeblink; that the guy at the bus stop at 11 pm is probably actually just waiting for a late bus, not hanging out there because he has no where to go/is trying to sell me drugs. I'm sure there's some of all that, of course; even Mayberry had cops, and for a reason. But it's so much calmer and quieter and more serene.

So we did move kind of to the country. And, as a clarification, I have in fact eaten a good number of peaches here.

Monday, June 23, 2014

How Fast Things Are Changing

Warning: Bullshit musing ahead.

25 years ago today, so the internet tells me, I was waiting in line outside a theater with my friends Ed and Mike for many, many hours in the hot sun. We were going to see Batman, the Tim Burton version, with Michael Keaton (who, as an aside, was the best Bruce Wayne ever, though his Bats wasn't the bestest). In reading up on this thing, the 25 year anniversary of one of the many rebirths of superhero movies, I just looked at an article in a long since vanished and even then rather obscure magazine called Slaughterhouse which featured this line:

"The babyboomer generation is the first one that is raising its kids on film, TV, games and things that the baby boomers themselves grew up with."

I read that, and I thought, that's not very true. My mother was a boomer (well, not really, she was about six months early for that, but close enough), and I was a Gen X child (reasonably soundly in the midst of that sliding classification), and she never had (nor did her peers) "games" in any sense. My brother and I did, though: we had an Atari 2600 very early in that cycle, and my brother was The Best at Missile Command. The thing of it is, we had an entire world that my mother never really entered, and that she wasn't culturally suited to enter (not that boomers never gamed; some did, I'm sure, but it wasn't their birthright.)

What I'm really thinking about is that quote just in relation to how the world is unfolding now. My brother (the same one who totally owned Missile Command) has a daughter now (who is adorable and four months old.) He was raised in a world of gaming, infused with it from a very young age, and it is familiar to him. The internet, well, he wasn't raised in it (it didn't exist when he was that young) but he's certainly lived in it for much of his life. But his daughter, my niece, will grow up in a world that barely resembles my brother's, while still being the exact same place. In ten years, when she's getting her first phone or phone-like-device, she'll already be so intimately entwined with whatever the web is by that distant year that she will be a native of it in a way that my brother, for all that much of his job life has involved computers and the like, never will be. And though there will be some similarity of experience, some analogies and metaphors that will convey meaning from him to her, the on the ground day to day living of it will be vastly removed, the one from the other.

Ten centuries ago, had we lived then and not died of the plague or famine or endemic warfare or whatnot, her life would have been almost the same as his. Perhaps the chunk of territory we lived in might have gone from being French to German, or something, but that wouldn't have actually changed much. Possibly a new sort of pike would have been introduced, and folks would say it was too long and no one could use it, but the formation of pikemen would still work just the same. Maybe the little coastal town we could imaginably all live in would get some sort of charter from the monarch, and get a few rights, and wouldn't that be grand, but it wouldn't actually change much. Our grandparents and our grandchildren would most likely recognize our way of life without any real difficulty, possibly out to three or four or even five generations (though certainly not further than that for most situations. Even the Middle Ages saw change.)

But in twenty years, my grandmother, if she were to magically become a contemporary of my by then college aged niece, would have no idea what was happening. Grandma Jean would have been that age in 1944, a time when there weren't regular intercontinental flights, when the first atomic bomb hadn't been set off, when massive wars were still happening (literally, of course, but also when it was possible to think that would always be the case, once a generation, much like clockwork.) The first computers were just being thought about, worked on, worked up, and they were huge monsters. There was plenitude in the world, and all was growth and expansion and possibility. In twenty years (2034, if you're fumbling with the timelines like this was the Back to the Future trilogy explained in six paragraphs), I can't even conceive of what the world will be like. Broken, maybe: less abundance, possibly in a fatal sort of way. But the technologies, that's what I can't grasp. Twenty years ago there was only a primitive internet (forgive me, early adapters, I know you'll say it was amazing, but it wasn't. It was shite.) Gaming was a savage thing with far too many pixels. We were still using VCRs because there weren't DVDs, and we were still all making mixtapes. Cell phones? Well, they were a thing, sort of; Mulder and Scully carried them around in the X-Files, and they were biggish, clunky and ugly. They were also just phones, a thing they barely are at all now. So what will come in twenty years? I cannot begin to guess (which is why I generally don't write science fiction: I'm very bad at imagining how the trends will go.) But it will be so groundbreakingly different that, while my brother (and me, et al), will struggle to comprehend it, and will in some measure keep up a little bit (I mean, my mom is on Facebook, right?), we'll just be skimming the very surface of a very deep world.

Jean would be completely lost. Maybe, as a magically time warped twenty year old with a bouncy brain still fully adaptable in nature, she'd make great strides. But entire fields of innovation would have to be revealed to her, and then explained. There are great huge industries, powerhouses in the world economic engines, that didn't even have analogs in 1944.

So I think back 25 years, to being a teenager standing in line outside a theater that doesn't exist anymore, in the brilliant sun, just after finishing up my senior year of high school. How there were hundreds of us on those sidewalks, in the ticket holders line; we'd all shown up early to buy our tickets in person, because you couldn't get them any other way. And we knew almost nothing about the movie, because there weren't really spoilery pre-screenings, just the trailers we'd seen before other movies, just the couple reviews from the local paper and maybe a magazine we'd read. I remember one guy had to check in with his parents while we waited, because we were out there a very long time; he had to go to a payphone to do that, and put in a dime, and dial them up (probably on a push button display, but I can't say exactly). And although lining up hours early was a relatively new phenomenon, one that came with summer blockbusters in the mid-seventies, our parents and grandparents and so on had all lined up for things they wanted, and there wasn't a thing inherently strange about us doing it.

In seventeen years, right after she's out of high school, maybe my niece will do the same thing; maybe movies will still be made and released essentially like they are now, at least some of them. Maybe she'll be there, with her friends, sending off something the rough equivalent to a text to her parents, my brother and sister-in-law, just to tell them where she is, how it's going in the line. Probably some sort of video chat, quick and instant? Or will that be in just a few years that we make that standard? Oh, fuck, I don't know, and I can't know, and the thing is, it's not just the not knowing, it's the fact you can't even guess. The future has always been mysterious, but it used to be like a shape seen through the fog; you'd at least have some idea what was coming, even if you couldn't tell the exact details. Now there's not just that fog: the sun has set, and we're all stumbling forward in darkness, groping for the next thing, hoping against hope that it will be something wonderful. But even once we have it in our hands, will we recognize the shape of it?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Rereads: First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

This post's kind of deceptive. I didn't reread the whole First Chronicles. I'm going to, really, I am. But I haven't gotten to the third book just yet. Normally, when I do this kind of thing, I just read the first book and let it go, but that's not happening here, for reasons I will explain. But let me start of by saying that I've read Lord Foul's Bane and The Illearth War, and that I'll be reading The Power That Preserves next month; with that said, let's go.

I first read these books, by Stephen Donaldson, when I was about 10. I don't recall how they came into my orbit; there's two great possibilities, one of which is more likely. The less likely one is that my brother had bought them. The Covenant books are my older brother's favorite novels in all the world; he has a deep and abiding love for them that exceeds any I've felt for books in my life, and I love me some books. He recognizes fully what the world has concluded: that the books are complicated and troublesome and all that. Beside the point. They are his Middle Earth, his Narnia, his Wonderland; The Land is the place he would go, if a door opened up for him and let him go anywhere. So maybe he bought them. But of course, you never know books are going to become your favorites before you read them, and he is only twenty months older than me; a 12 year old in 1981 or so isn't exactly full of money, even with a paper route (which my brother had), so he wasn't going to be throwing down his hard earned cash for unknown quantities. There were X-Men comics to be bought, after all. So we come to the more likely version; that my mother saw them in a checkout line, in the racks of paperbacks which in those days included a good amount of fantasy, and tossed them in the cart as she so often did, to our great delight. Probably my brother would have read them first, if he had any interest in them; he was older, and got to do such things. But if he was busy or not too interested, it might have been me who read them first, actually; my brother's a quick reader, or was back in those days, but I was even faster. So let's assume the most likely situation: my mother buys the books and brings them home, I read them first, my brother doesn't read them, but consumes them.

Anyway. I remember liking them, and not being particularly troubled by them at all. There were adventures, and magic horses, and supercool hand to hand warriors, and Lords with flaming staves, and ur-viles, and Giants (always capitalized, note), and wars, and all that stuff. I read them and reread them over and over. The fourth book had come out about the time we were reading them, and maybe we read that at the same time, but it was a whole different thing. I do remember that I was the one who bought the fifth book myself with my limited pocket money, so I must have really rather liked the books. I remember buying it because it was also the first and only time I've been robbed in my life: I was at the 7-11 not far from my house, and I was buying the book and some form of chips and candy, and there were these two other boys about my age there, and they were friendly, and we started to walk home together, and part way back (going by way of a really neat trail that I hadn't been on before, but which was not at all out of the way, running between rows of houses on one of Seattle's endless series of hills) the slightly bigger one of them took my glasses off my face. One has few hostages to fortune as easily obtained as an eleven year old's glasses. So they took my money, which, after my purchases, amounted to a little more than two dollars, and they took the candy, which they had helpfully advised me about which kind to buy, and they left me the chips that they didn't want and the book they really didn't want and tossed down my glasses and ran. They didn't smash them, and they didn't take much of anything that mattered so I wasn't, if I recall correctly, really that mad. I never saw them again. I wonder where they lived: it must have been nearby because they knew the little path to take, but they weren't kids I knew at all. Such was the tribalism of our neighborhood that I'm not at all shocked; I didn't even know the kids who lived on the next street over.

We had these covers, of course
Darrell K Sweet did them, before he decided it was entirely unnecessary to even know what a book was about before he did the cover. These all show actual moments of the books, and if they have odd perspective and strange choices, they're still good and evocative covers, enhanced by the simple one color borders. My brother might still have these books, or he might not; maybe I ended up with them, I don't know. They were in very poor shape after years of serious reading by two youths.

Reading the first two now is a weird experience. Great numbers of words and phrases and snatches of text are still with me; these books are strongly stuck in my head, a part of my mythology almost as much as Tolkien. And there is much of Tolkien in the first one, Lord Foul's Bane, though mixed about and somewhat hidden: huge creatures who tell enormously long stories and speak a very long winded language; underground adventures in caverns with a narrow bridge crossing over a chasm; magic horses that appear when you call them, even though they have been far off; peoples who are like dwarves, or like elves; sentient forests. It's all there in the first book, and though it's enormously darker and lighter at the same time (despair and hope are powerful forces), you can see that it's been hugely influenced by the hugest of influences.

And then...well, the second book...it's suddenly clear that this isn't going to be a Tolkien clone at all, that it's not going to have too much to do with that other great epic. It's going to be richer and weirder and grimmer and it's going to be about things. There's still stuff you can tie to Tolkien, even structurally: splitting the group into one that quests into danger and another that fights battles of increasing desperation, for instance. But it's less noticeable, and it's going off far into its own place. The Lords are more interesting and compelling in this second book, possibly just because there's more of them (there are five in the first book, but only two do much of anything, and they don't even do much, really; the second book brings up nine, most of whom get at least a moment). And Covenant is more interesting because he's more conflicted, and more confused, and more tempted by the Land.

Plus, you're already past the rape. Because the first book has one, and the second book features the almost completely flat and uninteresting child of that rape who's kind of into her father in a majorly gross way which, in a very good choice, he declines to pursue. High Lord Elena is a major failing: she's didn't actually interest me at all, and I found almost every other character to have more to them. I remember thinking she was kind of cool before, but in the years (decades?) since I've read the books, she lost something for me. Maybe that's me, and she's still great? But I get nothing from her.

I'm looking forward now to reading the third book, and then the next trilogy which I read a couple of times, and then the final four books, which I've never touched. Finally, after 35 years, the story is complete, I guess, and I'm really wanting to get to the end of it.

So do they hold up? They do, though the first book is a bit of a grind. Donaldson has his linguistic ticks, words he overuses (surpassed is one that turns up way too often; characters spend a lot of time groaning; there's lots of them, really, and it can be kind of fun, once you're past caring about it, to see how often they turn up.) The Lords start off very ill defined (and in fact, they always remain slightly out of focus, but it's okay). It takes a book or two or three to really get how everything works (which is good, because it implies depth, but bad, because it implies muddied thought; I think it's kind of the middle ground, depth that is poorly expressed for a while; if you can't grasp it, there's no alternate way to gain access, so you're screwed.) But I'm liking them, that's sure, and I'm going to keep going. So they succeed, these First Chronicles, better than most.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Library of Rereads

So I have written a bit here about rereading, about going over books that I read when I was young and loved and what I think of them now. It's a fun thing to do (and I'm still doing some of that rereading, just being lazy and not much writing about it) and the library has been a great help. Because I'm not really working, just writing, which pays very irregularly, so I like getting books for free.

I keep discovering all sorts of books that I'd mostly forgotten. Recently I got both the first two books of The King of Ys by Poul and Karen Anderson and The Ealdwood by C. J. Cherryh, both books I first encountered decades ago while I was subscribed to the Science Fiction Book Club (which still exists somehow, a fact I cannot quit be stunned by). I quite liked both series when I was young, and I read them each more than once. I think I enjoyed the kind of naughty, lusty historicality of Ys, and the dreamy mythical oddness of Ealdwood, though of course I can't remember clearly my responses to them, and couldn't even recall the books' plots fully. Just bits and pieces, as one would expect of non-touchstone books read 30 odd years back.

I didn't manage to finish either of them. Or get more than fifty pages in. It's not that they weren't still pretty good; they were, I suppose. It's that I just didn't care enough to push through. The library borrowing did it for me; I have so many books I'm getting from there that spending a lot of time and effort on any given free volume that isn't really grabbing me just isn't worth it. So I'm getting books that I'm reading every word of (Glen Cook's Garrett P. I. books, for instance, which are still delightful and funny and dark and which I'm working my way through) and books that I'm sending back the day after I get them. I know that if I'd spent money on Anderson or Cherryh I'd have done more work to get through them, but since I didn't, I couldn't be bothered.

I had always, in a vague sort of way, been aware of this equation: that what you pay money for you will do more to get value out of, even if there really isn't much value at all. But getting my books from the library has made it very clear to me how that really functions, in my life at least. I will make myself suffer to try to pull something out a book I don't much like, just because I spent eight bucks on it; but a book I kind of enjoy--only kind of--I won't even keep reading past the first hour, because I've got nothing invested. Makes me think I should charge people 5 bucks to read my rough drafts, because they'd get to it quicker and with more feeling. It could just be a deposit, and I'd refund it after they were done, but I think I'd get more feedback that way.

Anyway. I have some Raymond Feist on my pile from the library right now and I know I loved his stuff when I was kid; also some Steven Brust, which I greatly enjoyed; let's see if that's still the case when I get to them in a few days. I'm going to hope so; I'm looking much forward to them both. But who can say, right?