Monday, March 27, 2017

Amazon Prime's "Oasis" Pilot

Ok, not bad.

Let it be noted that I am not, myself, a real fan of dystopic fiction. Post-apocalypse? Nah. Zombie infestations? Nah. Nightmare attacks on the social order? Um...too much like real life for me right now. So this Amazon Prime pilot, made in the UK and based on Michael Faber's The Book of Strange New Things, had a lot of heavy lifting to do from the very start. It's set in a a world where the bad part of town is pretty much all of town, and the outlook is bleak. But!!!

But there is a new world--a brave new world--with brave heroes signing up to populate it. A future off earth. A new heaven in the heavens.

This is the premise surrounding Ecumenical Chaplain Peter Leigh's enlistment in the colony effort. What's Ecumenical? "It means I'm Christian." It's not clear if he's even that, or how important it may be beyond providing a clear basis for his recognition of scriptural references. In any case, Peter Leigh, upon receiving a passionate request from the colony co-founder, David Morgan, is shipped up on what may prove to be a one-way trip to the New World--which is no heaven. Bleak, dry, reminiscent of Dune/Arrakis, the planet itself is only the first unsettling surprise awaiting Leigh's arrival. He soon discovers the efforts to drill for water deep beneath the wind-blown sands have been stopped; that David Morgan has disappeared into the uncharted wastes, leaving only odd, scripture based messages as clues behind him; that the colony is haunted with visions and dreams, including dreams of the dead. A mystery is set in place, in an evocative, unhappy setting, as bleak it its way as the moors of Wuthering Heights and The Hound of the Baskervilles. 

I won't give away details--that would be to rob you of the elements that overcame my own apathy. The performances are reasonably strong. The filming offers clearly defined, strong atmosphere, unsettling world-building. The underlying mystery appeals, if only because those unfamiliar with the dystopic SF genre do not know where it could go--and those familiar with the genre can imagine multiple outcomes all based on reasonably clear story-telling. Round and round and round the plot goes--where it will end is anyone's guess. But, of course, I haven't read the novel...

As I have said, I'm not all that fond of dark, dystopic SF, but as that genre goes, this proved to be worth at least the time the pilot took. One hopes to see the entire story--though I will confess, it's not my favorite of Amazon Prime's offered pilots this year. That honor goes to the entirely non-SF "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," a dramedy about the professional birth of a female stand-up comic in 1958 that rings all kinds of bells for me. But Oasis rates second place for me in spite of its dark genre--and that ought to be an endorsement of sorts. I want to see more episodes, and I am now tempted to read the novel. I certainly do not regret seeing the pilot episode, and can only say "Go thou and do likewise."

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Temptation of the New

Ok, I admit it. I am forever and all Jonesing for new gadgets I can't afford, and probably won't even use enough to justify the purchase. I yearn for a Wacom Cintiq--drool, long for it, make puppy-dog eyes at the screen. But I'm on a budget tight enough that I occasionally still have to accept help from friends and relations to make base budget. Cintiq is on the wish-list, but off the likely-purchase list. Similarly I hunger and thirst not for righteousness, but for an MS Surface and, even hotter, the new Surface Studio. With a starter price that undershoots $3,000 by one lying, hypocritical dollar, that's so not happening.

My current new dream-boat, though, is even less likely, if only because it's less practical for me. I mean, I am a writer, and an amateur artist, and I could in theory get real professional use out of the Surface, the Cintiq, and the Studio.

Really. I might.

Stop laughing at me.

What I know I won't get income out of is the nifty new PlayTable, a specialized device intended to allow you to download and play boardgame apps. The device, about the size of a school cafeteria lunch tray, includes a touch-screen top allowing play. It's not yet clear what limits there are on available apps, or the quality of the compatible downloads. The promotional material ( makes it look like a board-gamer's wet-dream. At least to me.

And that's catch number one. I am not a board gamer, even though this product makes me fantasize that I could be! My board games of choice are checkers, Chinese checkers, and backgammon, for the love of God. I have yet to play Settlers of Catan...and that's one of the few to tempt me. I like Battleship--for about half an hour, once every ten years. I enjoy watching other people play Risk, so long as I can leave the room regularly.

I do not need a PlayTable. My kid, who loves games, may need it. I do not.

And, yet, every so often new technology comes out that's so obviously appealing. A console with all your favorite board games loaded up and ready to go! One that provides pretty, zoomy graphics and animation, that lets you move pieces around, that is eye-candy. Of course I want it--just the way I knew from the moment I found I could load digital books on my first tiny PDA I knew that I wanted a digital library: that it had to happen because it was a lust just waiting to be satisfied. I look at the PlayTable and my gut says it's desire in a box, for an almost endurable starting price of one hypocritical dollar less than $600.00.

(Do I have a grudge against companies which use $599.00 to somehow convince you you're paying less than $600.00? Why, yes. Yes, I do...)

I never know how to stop these longings--for the shiny Surface Studio or for the nifty-keen PlayTable. They offer the combination of novelty, convenient access to desirable pastimes, and elegant presentation, and I am lost. My only hope is that the lack of funds that prevents me from buying will also prevent me from investing in tech that fails to satisfy--and that time will bring similar tech at lower prices, to someday satisfy my lust. After all--Kindle and Nook became real things, and now every tablet out there lets me read premium lit at wholesale prices. So--hope springs eternal. Almost as eternal as temptation.

Monday, March 20, 2017

New Publishing

Today I discovered, serendipitously, that one of my favorite authors has a line of fantasy novellas out which I had not even heard of, set in one of my favorite of her fantasy worlds. Lois McMaster Bujold has four novellas set in her Five-Gods world, which was first presented through three novels: The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt. The new series, seeming to be a nice mystery-fantasy genre blend, features a mage-detective named Penric. I went on a minor spending spree, made affordable by the prices of digital material independently published. I am now looking forward like mad to burrowing into the set.

The first Bujold novella of a 4-book series.
The discovery was serendipitous as I am in the middle of attempting to assemble a Patreon account for my own works--a bold venture, though I increasingly wonder why I have not attempted it before. Many years ago, when the Kindle was mere promo from Amazon and people were swearing that there was no practical way to distribute digital reading material, I was out proselytizing what to me was the absolute certainty that digital was soon going to hit its stride and change the world. I got brushed off repeatedly by people who knew better, and have been laughing ever since, while making such living as I manage working in that realm.

My argument then, as now, is that digital publishing, by removing the physical constraints of book sales, offers all players a brilliant new playing field. A digital book takes up no real space, needs no real world storage, can be delivered in the blink of an eye anywhere the internet itself runs. The production costs approach near-zero if you start with the assumption that you were either going to write that book anyway, or that you already had done so. It's harder to protect your rights, but it theoretically should be easier to protect your payments, either by self-publishing or by demanding automatic bookkeeping reports, sale by sale and book by book. An author's midlist now need not ever go out of print in any practical sense. Combined with print-on-demand and backed with a wide range of crowdsourcing schema, an author is no longer at the mercy of an often rigid, predictable publishing industry.

Digital publishing and digital distribution of hobby writing have changed the very nature of writing, creating opportunities and at the same time presenting crippling challenges. If publication is near-free for everyone, quality control is almost destroyed. Brilliant hobby writers flourish, offering free material for the honest joy of being read. Dreadful, incompetent "professionals" charge unpredictable and often overblown prices for badly written, badly edited nightmare material. A range of professional digital publishers, from reliable houses to horror-story versions of the old vanity press abound, and sorting them out remains a problem. As for the difficulty of promotion in this environment? Consider that an author I love and follow was able to get four books I definitely want to read into digital print, and I only found out about it as the result of a side search that showed me related of which rang alarms for me.

To me this is a time of great excitement. When a novelist--even a noobie, unfledged novelist--can fund and promote a book through Kickstarter, or develop their own brand using a Patreon page, or find a digital publisher online, without the difficulty of going through the old pro publishing gatekeepers, then all bets are off. In time, creativity will win out. Genres will mutate, forms will alter, literary assumptions will be challenged...and that's the stuff of fantasy and science fiction itself.

One of the hardest things facing science fiction and fantasy writers in this era is trying to keep even remotely up with the wonders unfolding around us. We are facing changes so profound that our minds can't predict what comes next, or what it will mean to "the human condition." What does it mean when we all have voices? When every one of us has the hope of being heard--and millions of competitors shouting to compete against?

The changes generated in the late 1800s and early 1900s have only come to full flower now, when we register what industry, travel, and modern medicine made possible. Much of our society's current turmoil is rooted in the results generated by the changes modern science and technology made not only possible, but inevitable. We struggle with impermanent communities, fragile families no longer bound by bitter necessity, biological freedom from what were once eternal norms--illness, unwanted pregnancy, high infant mortality. A look at today's newspapers shows the long-term effect of shifts that began between two and three hundred years ago. The culture shock is profound.

Then I ask myself what shock is still to come, as our genes are unlocked, our ability to communicate with the world made very close to being both free and easy, our medicine so advanced we can imagine almost anything without being too extreme: chimeral bodies, ageless bodies, selective health.

As in the world of new publishing, all bets are off, and anyone's guess may prove good. We live in interesting times.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Norse Mythology--Neil Gaiman

Woot! Squee!  See the fangirl dance--dance, fangirl, dance!

Yes. I am rejoicing. I have bought Neil Gaiman's latest, Norse Mythology. I picked up both the digital ebook and the audiobook, and I am very happy I splurged some of my precious ebook credits to get the audio. Some things really do qualify as added value in my word, and to hear Gaiman's expressive, focused reading of his own work is right up there. He not only knows what he wrote, and what he meant it to convey--he's enough of a performer to then get that meaning across in his reading. It's not always so: I've heard readings by authors who may have known the mood, tone, and meaning they were aiming for, but who could no more perform that in a reading than they could whup Fred Astaire on the dance floor.

Gaiman's nimble and fleet. If he were a dancer he'd be bubbly and clever as Astaire, cool as Michael Jackson was in his time, and solid and intense and amused as Gene Kelly.

So--what's Norse Mythology like?

Wonderful, not least because it brings back a lost art--the more or less straight retelling of ancient stories in a modern voice. For the past twenty and more years, the fashion has been for a sort of "Fractured Fairytale" aesthetic in any kind of myth or fantasy-related context. Much, if not all of modern fantasy writing is about showing how you can break the mold. Think of my comments a few weeks back regarding the modern retelling of the Oz stories in Emerald City, where the creators are turning themselves and their source material into pretzels to make everything old new again. And, yes--I liked it. I continue to like it. There's nothing wrong with it....except that for ages its seemed like no one attempted to retell the old material with a straight face. And, yet...

Gaiman, in his introduction, comments on when he himself first encountered the Norse myths: first through comic books and then through a popular retelling aimed at a common audience of children and adults. That's the sort of encounter many of us had with myths of all cultures. It's a good choice: it allows people of all ages and levels of interest to get a first solid, sensible synopsis, without in any way standing in the way of expanding and deepening that information if you choose.

Perhaps it's the current cultural polarization thing: mythology for the common person is sure to set alarms ringing for many Right Thoughts gatekeepers, and to set off just as many in the sacred halls of American Christian orthodoxy. Between the people concerned about incipient signs of imperialism in retellings and those fearing demonic possession of their children by the devils of ancient heathen myths, there's only a narrow window left. And, yet...

Gaiman's doing a spot-on job. His patient, intelligent voice lays out great swaths of exposition with energy but not hyper edge, knowing perfectly well what's best explained and what's best dramatized. His characters, the Norse Gods, are plausible, but powerful. He's done his homework--indeed, he assures us he spent his time with good translations of the various source materials, rather than with re-reading of previous re-tellers of the old stories. Like those older storytellers, he has gone back to the original material, and his interpretation is his own: no more than a second-hand reinventing, rather than a muddle of fourth- and fifth- and sixth-hand reports.

He's given me a stronger appreciation for Odin--a God whose primacy never made much sense to me. (But, nu, most Heads of Pantheon make limited sense to me, so...sue me.) His handling of Loki is careful and neither too sympathetic nor too accusatory. I want to re-listen to think about how he handles his female characters, but so far I'm quite happy.

Odin, by Georg von Rosen, public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I may come back to this, perhaps after I read the text as well as listen to the audio. In the meantime, though, I would heartily recommend this book for your own shelves, or for any kid, male or female, whose reading skills are good enough to manage Harry Potter--at least, Harry Potter from, say, Azkaban on